Werner Herzog Is 80 and Loving It: ‘Time Is on My Side’

·14 min read

Werner Herzog’s career entered a renaissance when most directors his age slow down. After 2005’s “Grizzly Man” turned his distinctive Bavarian accent into a pop culture phenomenon, the director previously best known for German New Wave entries “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre, Wrath of God” was suddenly both fodder for internet memes galore and a Hollywood actor playing villains in “The Mandalorian” and “Jack Reacher” (not to mention his voicework on multiple episodes of “The Simpsons”). Yet none of these strange twists got in the way of his main career as a filmmaker. “I’m plowing ahead,” he said in a conversation with IndieWire over Zoom this month.

Herzog turns 80 on September 5, when he’ll be attending the Telluride Film Festival, where one of the main venues bears his name. He assumed some kind of celebration was in the works. “I have no clue what to expect there,” he said, “but I’ll face it.”

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Herzog has been a regular at the 49-year-old gathering for decades, even when he doesn’t have a new film to present, but that’s hardly the case this year. Ahead of its official premiere at TIFF, Herzog is screening “Theatre of Thought,” the inquisitive director’s latest epistemological journey, which finds him teaming up with neuroscientist Rafael Yuste to explore brain science in unique Herzogian terms. He’s also promoting several other recent achievements: another documentary, “The Fire Within,” which revolves around the ill-fated married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft (who were also recently profiled in the Sundance-acclaimed “Fire of Love”) and his novel “The Twilight World.” He recently finished writing his upcoming memoir, “Every Man for Himself and God Against All,” while a new documentary directed by Thomas von Steinaecker called “Radical Dreamer” surveys Herzog’s career in its entirety.

Herzog has never rested on his laurels. His lyrical observations and adventurous spirit may inform his brand, but it’s also no joke: Herzog takes his work very seriously. His production company, Skellig Rock, takes its name from a tiny island off the southwest coast of Ireland inhabited by medieval monks “until they were thrown into the sea by marauding vikings,” Herzog explained. He shot the climax of his 1976 film “Heat of Glass” there.

The past is always present for Herzog, who can wax poetic on narrative features he made 40 or 50 years ago as clearly as he can pontificate on the subjects of his recent soul-searching documentaries. As he enters his eighth decade, Herzog has no plans to slow down. “While we are sitting here, I’m into four or five new projects,” he said.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: What does it feel like to turn 80?

Werner Herzog: It sounds like statistics. I do not really relate it. I’m coming of age. Of course, I do notice that I’m coming of age, but I’ll do what I do until they care me out feet first.

Herzog on the set of “Fitzcarraldo”
Herzog on the set of “Fitzcarraldo”

You’ve now made a film that interrogates the autonomy of the human mind. This question might be a bit played out, but I still feel compelled to ask you: Are we living in a simulation?

Well, it’s not a simulation made by anyone. It’s made by us. We create our cultural norms. In earlier cultures, it was normal to have human sacrifice. Today, of course, we’ve shifted someone else where we create our own norms, our own rituals, our own performative life. When you’re in the military, if the drill sergeant yells at you, and you stomp your feet down, that’s completely performative. That would be very strange to see for an ancient Roman legionnaire. Of course, what is fascinating is that we often invent realities like in video games. Quite often, young people in particular get addicted to them. They prefer this world of pure invention to the reality outside their doorstep. I find that fascinating. Apparently, tests have shown that sometimes — I say sometimes — mice prefer completely artificial worlds created for them with video projection. This is really wild! What the hell is going?

Does science make you question the boundaries of our reality?

I would be very cautious about saying that, but we need these new kinds of inventions in order to make our existence livable. We are walking on crutches on invention. I have this impression that the explosive progress of science is at least as important as understanding DNA and creating new crops. It’s just phenomenal how it has changed, and is still changing, human life.

You tend to have a rather entropic reading of civilization: We’re all doomed, nature is chaos, and so on. But now you almost sound hopeful.

It’s a little bit like the internet. Yes, I name the glory of the internet in my film [“Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World”]. At the same time, I point out the dangers of it. Here, it is similar: Yes, there is a glory of understanding what is going on in our brains, but at the same time, if you can read thoughts to a certain degree, what happens if it gets into the wrong hands? If rogue secret services read your mind, they don’t even need to torture you anymore. We have understood freedom of speech as a fundamental human right, but now we should introduce freedom of thought. That’s important, and the country of Chile is doing that, which is why I filmed a little bit there for this film. It will become a part of their new constitution.

How might this impact the creative process?

It’s extraordinary that you could have something read what you want to say if you’re paralyzed. Maybe you could read my next movie and I wouldn’t even need a camera to make it. It’s incredible. There’s an Israeli scientist at Princeton who created technology that can read storytelling to some degree. It tells you part of a story. Then he can read what you’re thinking — how you would continue the story. That’s really incredible.

At one point in your new film, you meet up with Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who famously walked across the Twin Towers and risked death. He seems almost incapable of experiencing fear. Do you?

I feel akin to him. I’m one of those who is not fearful. I have been very, very close to volcanoes. We shouldn’t make a big fuss about it. I think that fear basically has to do with our relationship to our own demise. If you have settled that, most fear will probably disappear.

“Fitzcarraldo,” which turns 40 this year, has been mythologized as a hellish shoot. Looking back on it, is there anything you wish had gone differently there?

It is impossible to do that, really, so it doesn’t concern me. I think the film is unique. Nobody has anything like that. Nobody has ever had to move a ship over a mountain. It was a monster of a film. It sums up a lot of what I have done and how I function.

Having seen footage of Mick Jagger and Jason Robards’ performances in the film before they were cut, it’s clear that they gave you very compelling performances. The film would have been quite different if you’d finished with them.

Klaus Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo” - Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock
Klaus Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo” - Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Moviestore/Shutterstock

Well, it didn’t happen. Our leading actor Jason Robards was so ill that we had to fly him to the United States and his doctors wouldn’t allow him to return to the jungle. Three weeks later, Mick Jagger had a world tour with The Rolling Stones, so I said, “Let’s forget about it, I cannot film around you all alone and incorporate you.” Half the film was already finished and I had to throw it away. I have always thrown away huge amounts of negative materials, every single outtake, including Mick Jagger. Some of the footage only survived because I gave it to Les Blank for his film “Burden of Dreams.” Later I asked if I could have it back for my own film on my relationship with Kinski, “My Best Fiend.” But in general, I keep saying that a carpenter doesn’t sit on his own shavings. Celluloid creates a lot of costs for storage and it has to be cooled down. That’s way too expensive.

After “Grizzly Man,” you became famous in a whole new way, but you had decades of work behind you. How do you feel about this strange recent chapter of your career?

I have noticed that my audience has shifted. Today, I get emails from 15-year-olds who want to know about films I have made from before even their parents were born. I have the feeling that the films do not age. When you look back at a lot of the films of the ‘70s, you see from the first image that they’re outdated. But when you look back at “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” or “Land of Silence and Darkness,” or “Signs of Life,” they could have been made yesterday. Those are films that excite very young people.

And yet it has become so much harder to make movies. You run workshops for aspiring filmmakers. What’s your advice to directors when the industry offers such limited opportunities?

I’m not into the culture of complaint. Even in my early days, it wasn’t that different. The film industry is something that has its own aspirations. Today it is much easier to make films because it’s much less expensive. You can shoot a feature film on your cell phone, which can be shown theatrically. We have examples of successful films that were shot on cell phones and you can edit your film at home on your laptop. Young people have been coming to me in great numbers. There’s literally an avalanche of young people who want to learn from me, or be my assistant, or whatever. In my workshops, they have to make a film within eight or nine days. That has been very helpful for them.

I assume you advise them to keep their budgets low.

“Aguirre, the Wrath of God” was made for very little money. You know how much it cost? When you look at the film, you think that nobody could do it for under $60 million. The grand total budget was $340,000.

One day of production on “The Mandalorian.”

Like half a day. “Fitzcarraldo,” which is a big, big, spectacular film, had no budget at all. So I made big films with no budget.

Werner Herzog in “The Mandalorian” - Credit: Courtesy of Disney / Lucasfilm
Werner Herzog in “The Mandalorian” - Credit: Courtesy of Disney / Lucasfilm

Courtesy of Disney / Lucasfilm

When you’re on the set of an expensive project like “The Mandalorian,” what do you make of the way that money is being spent?

I don’t mind. This is an industry and of course things were fairly expensive on that because they have created this round horizon so we don’t need green screen anymore. As an actor or cinematographer, you can see the foreign planet in which you are moving. There are new mythologies and planets to fantasize about. Of course that has a price and it doesn’t worry me at all.

Any plans for future acting work?

I’ve never volunteered for it. I’ve always been dragged into it. Of course, the screenplays have to make sense, and it has to be a part where I feel comfortable. When it comes to the role of a real bad-ass bad guy, I know I can do it.

In spite of all that, you seem like a pretty nice guy.

I’ve always been like that. It’s not a paradox; it’s a performance. Do not confuse my person with the role that I play in front of a camera. My wife, who has lived with me for 27 years, will testify convincingly that I’m a fluffy husband. I’m paid for spreading terror onscreen. I do it well and I deserved the money I was paid for it. I earned it.

Do you feel like you’ve been appropriately compensated over the course of your career?

Well, most of my life, I’ve lived in semi-poverty. Whenever I had some box-office returns, I would invest them into a new film. “Theatre of Thought” was entirely financed out of my own pocket. Almost from one day to the next, I said I was not going to wait a year and a half until I got some grants or convinced National Geographic to come onboard. I just went out and started shooting. You will never see me in a fancy car or in a big mansion. It’s the way that I like to work and live. [Herzog later emailed a clarification: “It is an incorrect statement that I entirely financed the project myself. When I was almost done shooting, the Sloan Foundation gave me a grant. Sometimes I get carried away, and forget that I was not all alone.”]

Has the financing process changed for you over the years?

It has become more difficult to finance a film today than it was 40 years ago. But do you see me limited? I made two films last year. It’s not that I have ever planned a career around transforming something on the bestseller list into a movie. There isn’t something like “The Lord of the Rings” out there that I could make into a movie or a series. I’ve never functioned like that. It’s always been this great vehemence with which I’m confronted.

Despite the longevity of your career, you’ve only received one Oscar nomination, for “Encounters at the End of the World.” Does that bother you?

I’ve made 80-odd films and not a single one of them ever got onto the shortlist with one exception. Even “Grizzly Man,” which had enormous resonance, didn’t make it. I was always asked why I didn’t get an Oscar for that. It is what it is and I don’t spend any sleepless nights thinking about it.

How have your professional decisions influenced the way you’ve raised your family? Your daughter is an artist and both of your sons are filmmakers.

I warned them, but in vain. My older son Rudolph, I was even onboard with his last film, “Last Exit: Space,” about space colonization. He’s also a writer. I said to him, “If you really want to do this, just look at me. It’s not an easy life. But so what?” He knows what he’s doing.

There’s an upcoming “Documentary Now!” episode where Alexander Skarsgard satirizes you. How do you feel about these sort of impersonations?

So what? Let them do it. If it’s any good, why not? Normally, it’s pretty lousy — I have seen at least two dozen doppelgängers out there on the internet, voice imposters. Before I finish a film, there’s already a parody of it. I don’t worry. There’s a different representation of the self out there with the internet. The way you represent yourself on social media, on YouTube or whatever, it’s all embellished, it’s all artifice. I’m pretty much ignorant of it because I’m not on Facebook on Twitter or anything. That world does not exist for me.

There are probably people out there now who have encountered satiric representations of you before even seeing your films.

I have no idea and couldn’t care less. I just have some points of orientation which I find interesting. For example, a few years ago, a letter of mine to my cleaning lady went viral. In the letter, I was putting her down, cursing her, and there was a shit-storm of indignation: “How can he speak about his cleaning lady like that?” I looked into the traffic of responses and it was only number 104 where someone finally says, “Don’t you see this is satire and not written by Werner Herzog?” The real writer outs himself. People don’t read deeply the way they used to. They cannot understand context.

Do you worry that once you’re not around, you won’t be able to correct the record?

No, no, come on, let it go wild. It will recorrect and then go wild again. You can’t do anything about it. Time is on my side.

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