My week reached its zenith when towards the end I came excitingly close to a living legend, a man of boundless talent and originality, Werner Herzog. Ever since I first saw Fitzcarraldo the film in which, Klaus Kinski’s character so famously pulls and pushes a big boat over a mountain in order to bring an opera to a small tribal village somewhere in the Peruvian jungle, I have been enamoured by his films. Then after seeing the making of this monumental production, Burden of Dreams I realised that Herzog was much more than a talented filmmaker, he was a visionary, a genius who stopped at nothing prior to accomplishing his creative quest. I think it is fair to say he thereby oversteps the boundaries to insanity on a regular basis. One must only have a look at the relationship between him and Klaus Kinski to understand that first come his films and then everything else. Herzog struggled through probably every possible blunder during the making of Fitzcarraldo, death, revolts, countless accidents, as well as sickness and the consequent loss of his leading actors to mention but a few. Nevertheless he continued shooting and finishing his film. But Fitzcarraldo is just one of countless films he has made. I find this resilience and self-belief, bordering on megalomania fascinating. I have watched many more of his films and documentaries, old and new and I have always found at least some elements of his uncompromisingly strong voice and vision. If nothing else his choice of radical and often disturbing characters have never left me unmoved.
The other night Herzog was giving a talk/discussion here in London together with Paul Holdengraber, Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library. Unfortunately Holdengraber was one of the most presumptuous and annoying interviewers I have come across in a while. Nevertheless the evening, part of a series titled Legend Returns was a success. Herzog spoke about an array of subjects. Of course his new release, a documentation of the 300,000-year-old Chauvet caves in France were one of them. The caves are covered in beautiful drawings created all the way back in the Ice Age depicting the earliest known images of mankind. Herzog is one of a handful of people who were allowed into the caves and the only one who has ever been allowed to film in there.
True to his talent he goes off on a tangent visiting a crocodile pit nearby where he invents almost sifi-facts while images of crawling albino crocodiles slowly unfold in front of our eyes. His mixture of fictious elements and factual documentation infuriate traditionalist but I only thought it added to the poetry. I can’t wait to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams shot in 3D, in full length. There is a great clip in which Herzog talks about his cave endeavors on http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2010/apr/13/werner-herzog-cave-art-documentary-3d
That night we also saw extracts from his latest project, still unedited, a documentary within a maximum-security prison, on death row to be precise. Herzog’s refusal to take sides with or against the prisoners, his refusal to demonise or harmonise his subjects makes the film all the more chilling.
What fascinates me about Herzog is how gutsy and unedited he is in and outside of his movies. It never feels as though he wants to please his viewers. That night I realised that this went as much for his public appearance as it does for his artistic vision. There is also a humorous side to the man, which I was unaware of prior to his recent appearance. Of course his film narrations have always made me laugh, if only for his accent. His immaculate use of language is still, unapologetically laced with that heavy Bavarian accent after decades of English speaking. Isn’t that in itself a statement to a nonconformist way of life? In Encounters at the end of the World he ponders on whether or not some penguins might actually be gay. He does so in such a matter of fact manner that I never imagined he might actually be aware how funny he really is. Well he does!
He had me roaring with laughter throughout the evening. I loved how happily he expressed his loathing for pseudo spiritual blabber, i.e the New Age conundrums and especially yoga. At one point he said if any of us women were to do yoga he would never marry us. He quickly added that he would never marry us anyway because he was happily married already. Despite being fond of yoga myself, purely as an exercise form, his views amused me and struck a cord. The idea that twisting and turning in a yoga class or chanting bizarre lyrics will make us a better human being, is absurd. I totally get what he is saying. It’s the illusion of fixing ourselves with superficiality, incense, breathing, stones whatever else is suddenly trendy, that seems to be what Herzog very wisely rejects.
You might have gathered that I am mesmerised by his many original insights and conclusions and by the way he happily dismisses popular Zeitgeist. He appears indifferent to charming us but at the same time he does want us, the audience, to really understand his vision. When I see a great work of art, a film or a piece of music, I expect to get an opinion, an idea even an illusion or a dream anything but, the edited and politically correct norm afraid to offend. We have enough editors out there neatly chopping our world into bite size portions, stupefying readers or viewers. Herzog in each and every of his films seems guided by that inner and stern belief in himself and his ideals and that to me is the role of a great artist.
He is one of the great filmmakers of our time, a true dreamer. That imaginary dinner party one is always asked about, where you could invite whomever you wanted, dead or alive. Well, in my fantasy one seat is and always has been reserved for Werner Herzog. Maybe one day it will happen. Dream on!