I'm pretty sure I first became aware of Werner Herzog — his name, at least — as a college freshman, absorbing the titles in the media center video catalog. And his films appeared enough for me to understand that he was Important.
It was only after watching his mesmerizing Every Man for Himself and God Against All during a German language course that I was able to appreciate the magnitude of Herzog's talent, one that has earned him a place among the world's foremost directors.
Herzog is one of the most respected directors over the past 40 years, and the recognition of his achievements as an artist include an Emmy, Academy Award, BAFTA and multiple film festival awards. His latest film, Into the Abyss, about two Texas death row inmates, recently earned Best Documentary honors at the London Film Festival.
Known for provocative points of view, and what some might deem eccentric and bold behavior, Herzog famously pulled Joaquin Phoenix out of a car wreck and once issued a challenge to Errol Morris (then a film student; now an acclaimed documentarian). He told Morris that if he were to make a documentary about a pet cemetery, he would eat his own shoe. Morris made the film, called Gates of Heaven, and Herzog actually ate his own shoe, as documented in Les Blank's movie, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Margit Grieb, an associate professor of German in USF's department of world languages, the acclaimed director will be at USF on Sat., Nov. 19, at 3 p.m. for "An Afternoon With Werner Herzog." While there, he is scheduled to talk about and screen parts of a new work that is still in progress.
Grieb, a scholar in German cinema, spoke with CL about Herzog's forthcoming appearance at USF and his accomplishments as a director.
CL: From what I've read, Herzog likes to make a distinction between "fact" and "truth." How does this distinction inform his documentaries — films like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man?
Margit Grieb: Yes, Herzog is a proponent of what he calls "ecstatic truth," which is not truth in the sense of presenting facts, but rather an approach to showing images that convey an aesthetic which the filmmaker sees as a kind of truth. He said in an interview in June 2011 on The Colbert Report that in the realm of literature, a book of facts would be the Manhattan phone directory — 4 million entries, all correct (so factual truth), but when we read them we don't know anything about the people, e.g. what they dream at night, whether they cry themselves to sleep.
In other words, his films are not meant to convey factual information, but rather include a perspective in the presentation of things, persons, places, etc. He is an essay filmmaker rather than a documentary filmmaker in the traditional sense. In Grizzly Man, for example, one can see this by his presentation of the bear enthusiast as both a nature "romantic," so a likable character, but also a kind of fool, as nature will always reclaim its right to dominate the weaker elements. This latter statement is my own interpretation rather than a Herzog quote.
As a film scholar, what do you consider the essential Herzog films? Is there a quintessential Herzog film for you?
I think Herzog's earlier feature films are essential watching for any film enthusiast, e.g. Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu. The way in which he lets the camera narrate in the films is truly fine filmmaking. Also, his collaboration with Kinski in these films shows what a fine director he is, in that he allows Kinski to act in his own way, not according to the director's imagination, necessarily. A brilliant actor like Kinski was able to transform playing a mere role into giving an inspired performance that way. In recent years, I think his "documentaries" (or more precisely his essay films) are filmmaking at its finest. They are not vehicles for a political or pedagogical agenda but rather aesthetic and essayistic masterpieces.
Herzog is appearing at USF to discuss a new work — do you know anything about that work and why he's agreed to screen parts of it?
Not really. I only know that he will show a previously unreleased, new work. He says he's been working on more material in conjunction with his film about death row inmates in Texas (Into the Abyss), but I don't know whether the film he will show is part of that work in progress.
Herzog has an eclectic resume to say the least: documentaries, operas, his classic German films. But he's also worked with some big-name stars for films like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Rescue Dawn — where do these films fit in his oeuvre and how do you approach them as a critic?
To be honest, I don't really work on popular Hollywood film and therefore haven't thought much in a critical way about these two recent films. However, Rescue Dawn is a remake of an earlier Herzog film in German and therefore represents a revisiting of his prior work for him.
Nonetheless, Herzog belongs to a group of German filmmakers, voluntary exiles if you will, who have made the move to Hollywood after the demise of the New German Cinema art film movement (of the late '60s through early '80s). Another filmmaker and contemporary of Herzog who lives and works in Hollywood is Wim Wenders. However, although both filmmakers have made films in Hollywood in recent years, they have also continued to return to their German roots in their film themes and locations. Although Herzog has worked with top Hollywood actors, he is in no way comparable to filmmakers such as Roland Emmerich. His films always follow an aesthetic agenda before, or even instead of, a commercial one.
Herzog has talked about a "deeper strata of truth in cinema." Which of his films have that rush of truth for you?
His earlier films, such as Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Nosferatu immediately come to mind (probably because I teach them at USF in my film classes and have seen them numerous times), but his nonfiction films, such as Encounters at the End of the World, also hit that note, I think. They all go far beyond telling a story; they visualize something that is not visible to the eye without the director's guiding hand/camera.
How do you see Herzog's place in German cinema and his contributions to the art form?
He is one of the greats, for sure, also because his career has spanned so many decades, film movements, and political realities of Germany, from the post-WW2 generation to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the present internationalization of the German film production scene.