Werner Herzog at his home in Los Angeles. Photos by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
It’s only since dropping Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss that Werner Herzog became a staple of conversation between you and your friends. Before that, he was just the award-winning, critically acclaimed father of modern European cinema—the man who lugged a 320-ton boat over a hill in the Peruvian rainforest and cooked and ate his own shoe for a short documentary.
This month, Faber published A Guide for the Perplexed, a compendium of conversations between Herzog and the writer Paul Cronin. As a testament from one of the world's most prolific filmmakers, it reads almost as self-help. "Get used to the bear behind you," he tells us, ostensibly referring to the ambition and drive to create, but equally evoking images of Timothy Treadwell, a.k.a. Grizzly Man. I’m putting my neck out and saying it’s the best book I’ve read all year.
I caught up with Herzog on the phone last week, and we spoke about films, football, WrestleMania, and the loathsome trend of children’s yoga classes.
Werner Herzog at his home in Los Angeles
VICE: I’ve just finished reading A Guide for the Perplexed. Have you had a chance to read it?
Werner Herzog: Yes, I did when we were looking through the entire text for corrections. We left no stone unturned.
Is it strange reading yourself back?
I took a professional distance to it because I think it is unwise to stare at your own navel. Now it’s out for the readers. I’m plowing on with a lot of projects, so don’t worry about me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing Queen of the Desert, I’m preparing three feature films, and I am doing my rogue film school at the end of this week.
Can you explain a bit more about the rogue film school?
I can explain it easily. For 20 to 25 years there has been a steady avalanche of young filmmakers coming at me who wanted to be my assistant, or who wanted to learn from me or be in my team. And this has grown rapidly in numbers. For example, a few years ago, when I did a conversation on stage at the Royal Albert Hall—which has something close to 3,000 seats—it was sold out in minutes. And of these 3,000 people, there were at least 2,000 who would have liked to work with me. So I tried to give a systematic answer to this onslaught. The rogue film school can happen 50 times a year or once a year. I just need a projector. I could feasibly do it in the middle of the desert.
What do you make of this younger generation of filmmakers?
Kids who get in touch with me are very often around 15, 16, 17. Whatever you call this generation, I don’t know. I don’t care how you call them. One thing I find missing is the culture of reading. I mean, reading books. And this is one of the things I demand from the students at the rogue film school. There’s a mandatory reading list.
No, no, no. That would be the last thing. Film theory will be thrown out instantly. No, it's Roman poetry from Roman antiquity. Or Old Icelandic poetry. Or it will be a short story of Hemingway. Or the Warren Commission report on Kennedy’s assassination. All sorts of pretty wild stuff.
Can you explain what it was like entering the Chauvet Cave—home to the oldest discovered paintings in the world—while making The Cave of Forgotten Dreams?
You know that you have a privilege that hardly anyone else has—that’s the first thing. Each day there are more people on the summit of Mount Everest. And the caves will probably be shut down permanently very soon. If you have a scientific project or a convincing reason, you might get a permit. But heads of states from other countries were not permitted to enter. Of course, we have to see the images as they were seen by Palaeolithic painters. There were only flickering lights, and this creates some kind of dynamic, some kind of movement. In front of one of the main panels there are sources of light—a row of fires—but they are behind the people. So they would cast their own shadows on to the walls as well. We do not know the meaning of all this; all we can say is there was a cinematic element, a movement of light and shadow.
The trailer for Cave of Forgotten Dreams
You seem to take a cynical stance on academia.
Well, academia has been the death—or the near death—of poetry, and academia is beginning to invade cinema, and it tries to extinguish the flame. But it will not succeed. Whenever somebody comes with a film-theory approach to cinema I lower my head.
I take it you don’t consume much pop culture?
Not very much, no. Well, I look with great interest at phenomena like WrestleMania. Or I used to watch the Anna Nicole Smith Show because there was a very strange cultural shift there. I go to the football stadium; that’s a form of popular culture.
Do you ever go back to Bavaria?
Whenever I can, yes. I miss the Bavarian dialect. Being all over the world, the thing I miss most of my home country is the dialect.
Your imagination must have been able to run wild there. Did you look to figures like King Ludwig II?
Sure, of course. He’s a total cultural hero for Bavarians. He’s very, very important for understanding Bavarian culture. The sorts of dreams he realized and the dream castles he built—well, you see it all the way to Disneyland. The prototype of the Disneyland castle is actually King Ludwig’s invention.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria. Photo via Wikimedia
A lot of your work depicts people in extreme situations; are you never fascinated by elements of the day-to-day?
Well, yes, I have a very wonderful family life and I’m one of the very few men—very, very few men—who is really happily married. I find it most wonderful and most exciting. And I moved to Los Angeles because I fell in love 20 years ago.
Do you find it difficult to switch off and to stop observing people? Does your family ever just say, "Cut it out, Werner, we’re trying to eat our cereal"?
[Laughs] No. I am used to movie making. Of course I know how to behave around my family—I don’t need to switch on or off.
OK, just checking. Do you find yourself funny?
Well, I think there is a lot of humor in all of my films. Like I say in A Guide for the Perplexed, Paul Cronin asks me if I have anything I would like to pass on to the world, to the future generations, and I was reminded of what hotel magnate Conrad Hilton said: “When you take a shower, don’t forget to put the shower curtain inside the shower.”
Cool, I’ll remember that. In Encounters at the End of the World you seemed very concerned about the crazy penguins. Were you actually?
Look, it’s a dark humor. If you look at films like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, people laugh more than in an Eddie Murphy comedy. Some of my films have a warmer humor. There’s a lot of humor in my films that people seem only to be discovering now.
How do you get the people in your documentaries to open up?
I allow a lot of space to the persons with whom I talk. And I go very deep inside, very quickly. But this is very difficult to teach. For example, Into the Abyss starts with the chaplain who has to assist with the execution 30 minutes later. When I first spoke to him he spoke back like a TV preacher, phony and superficially. He had mentioned going to the golf course earlier and how the horses and squirrels and deer would look at him. So I stopped him, and I said, “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel,” and that’s where he came apart. That’s where he unraveled and we got to see very, very deep inside his soul.
Into the Abyss has been compared a lot to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Were you conscious of the similarities when you were making it?
We have to be careful because Truman Capote, in a way, exploited his subjects. I have always been very suspicious about Truman Capote, because for years and years he did not publish the book, claiming that it wasn’t finished. He just waited until both of them were actually executed, witnessed their execution, and wrote a final chapter about it. That is kind of suspicious to me. The book is very well written, although, may I say something? My film is deeper, and my film is better.
The trailer for Into the Abyss
You chose not to play the sound recording of Timothy Treadwell being killed by a bear in Grizzly Man out of respect to him…
Are there any moments in your career where you’ve regretted over-stepping the mark?
Not really, no. I'm on good terms with all of my films. Even the ones in which I'm acting, like when I played a villain in Jack Reacher. I enjoy what I do. And by the way, I am the only one who is really frightening in that film.
You are pretty scary in that film.
I am. I was paid handsomely and I was worth my money.
How was it working with Tom Cruise?
Interesting. What I like about him is his relentless professionalism. He’s a very generous, very kind man. You do not stay at the top for so many decades if you don’t have something special about you.
Are there any actors you'd like to work with still?
Yes, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Lillian Gish…
That might be a little tricky.
[Laughs] Marilyn Monroe! No, I’ve had the privilege to work with the best of the best. Most recently Nicole Kidman, who is sensational.
Can you quickly explain to me your contempt for gyms, yoga classes, and people who exercise in public?
And yoga classes for children. You name it. Let’s leave it at that. Just register that I have strong contempt for yoga classes for five-year-olds, yoga studios, and things like that.
But you’re friends with David Lynch, and he’s into transcendental meditation. Would you ever do anything like that?
A Guide for the Perplexed is published by Faber and Faber and is available now. To find out more about Werner Herzog’s rogue film school visit www.roguefilmschool.com.