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Werner Herzog On Science, Language, Mars, and His Fever Dreams

A chat with the unstoppable filmmaker on Radio Motherboard.
Werner Herzog near Mount Sinabung, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Image: Netflix

Listen to this episode of Radio Motherboard on Soundcloud, iTunes, and elsewhere, and read a transcript of the interview below.

Werner Herzog is something like a force of nature. Even if you haven't seen his films, you probably know them. You know his Teutonic, tectonic voice, and perhaps his reputation--and if you haven't seen them, there are plenty of good places to start. He's made about 50 films over five decades and in the past year alone, he's made two documentaries, Lo and Behold and Into the Inferno, about the internet and volcanoes; and two feature films, Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman, and Salt and Fire, with Gael Garcia Bernal (which also features a volcano). His dozens of movies range across the strange and sublime and terrible and wonderful terrain of human experience: lyrical documentaries like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World; absurdist fables like Stroszek, the story of a mentally challenged ex-con, an old man and a prostitute who leave Germany for the promised land of rural Wisconsin; and epics like Fitzcarroldo, for which Herzog famously--infamously--orchestrated the pulling of a ship over a mountain in Peru.


This incident became a metaphor for Herzog's ethos, but a number of others others have contributed to the Herzog legend over the years: the idea that he seems to thrive in and even attract dangers. One of my favorite Herzogian moments isn't in any of his films. It's the time in 2004 when, while in the midst of a televised BBC interview, Herzog was shot by someone with an air rifle. He looks puzzled, but barely flinches, and after inspecting the small bloody wound, laughs it off.

You can watch the scene on the web, along with any number of online memes and caricatures of Herzog, carried out by what he calls his "internet imposters." But Herzog doesn't care what you think about him, about his mythos. He does care about myth, the stories people tell and why. His newest movie, Into The Inferno, is as much about the culture and ideas that surround volcanoes as it is about the science. His guide is Clive Oppenheimer, a genial, passionate scientist whom he met while filming in Antarctica, and who guides him around 6 active volcanoes, including into an active danger zone in Indonesia, where they keep their eyes on the cone at all times. (See Tim Maughan's story about Oppenheimer and volcanology.)

And there is of course an embarrassment of eye-popping up-close, high definition volcano footage, some of it shot by drone, some of it shot by Herzog and his cinematographer, and some of it shot by Katia and Maurice Krafft, a pair of French volcanologists who obsessively chronicled lava floes and eruptions up close, closer than anyone--too close, it ultimately turned out. Their story--and the sublime footage they risked everything to get--is quintessential Herzog. "What are we, how do we function as human beings, what is awesome for us, what is storytelling for us, what is poetry for us, what are our fears and our glories," says Herzog of the questions that drive his films. Into The Inferno may be a documentary about volcanoes, but "it's not what National Geographic would have done," he adds happily. For Herzog, making documentaries isn't about formulas, but a "defiance of gravity for the sake of something awesome--for gaining sheer poetry. Sheer fever dreams in the jungle."


On writing: "Where ever I am I can write a screenplay … in a busy airport hall, a deaparture area of a an airport or on a crowded bus. Or at home, doing my tax returns in between, and answering the phone. So I don't need a very specific place. … I used to write on a typewriter because those days are over. In a way yes, I don't like the idea that there's too many trees being wasted. And that's the charm of the internet, that you have publications on the internet… [but] I remember more if I write down something in longhand."

On disappearing languages: "It's staggering. Of all the languages that we have right now, maybe five percent will be left by the end of this century. And it's not just languages. It means a worldview with the language. Just imagine the last Russian disappearing. There would be no more Tolstoy, no more music by Tchaikovsky, no more poetry by Akhmatova or Tsvetaeva. It's unspeakable."

On the climate: "We have to learn very quickly from mistakes or else we'll be unnecessary on this planet here anymore. I think we were never necessary. But it's one of those things that happened in evolution, and we are here and we better make the best of it."

On colonizing Mars: "I'm against colonizing Mars as a safe haven--we should better look into making our planet more habitable than it is right now…. I would [go] if I had a camera. Otherwise the idea of colonizing Mars in order to have a safe refuge from our planet is a very misconceived idea. I believe it's not going to happen. It's one of those technical utopias that in my opinion is, it's not going to happen. Other utopias will occur, and those will have to do with the internet."


Werner, how are you.

Good, where are you, if I may ask?

That's exactly what I was about to ask you.

I'm in Los Angeles, where I live.

OK. In your home?

Yes. And you?

I am in New York. I'm in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg. I'm in my house in my bedroom at the moment.


Where do you do your business from?

During the day I do it's literally where I am. I can write a screenplay or continue writing a screenplay in a busy part of the departure area for me I park on a crowded bus. Doing my tax returns in between answering the phone. So I don't need a very specific place.

I love working on buses too and airports. Do you tend to write on a computer or do you use a pen? it?

On a laptop, yeah. I used to write on a typewriter but those days are over because I'm not using paper.

You mean for environmental reasons?

In a way, yes. I don't like the idea that there's too much paper, many trees wasted. And that's the charm of , search the Internet, that you have publications on the Internet. And millions of tons of pulp from trees is not needed to such an extent anymore.

Although when I think about the Internet as someone who writes for the Internet and edits articles for the Internet and who lives on the Internet really it feels like a constant barrage like it's this sort of endless book whereas a book itself is so limited and focused. And I also feel like with writing writing by hand is obviously a different process, a different mental process than writing with a computer. But of course most of my writing I do on the computer too, and I do wonder how that affects my writing.


I do write in longhand when I watch the footage that I've shot. I watch it together with my editor and I wrote write tape what I call logbooks. I write in longhand because if of that. I do memorize many, many, many hours of film as if I was completely present. It vanishes after I've done it. But I can really almost perfectly memorize images and scenes and characters and situations because I wrote it down. I watched it and wrote down what I saw in longhand.

And that doesn't happen if you were typing on a computer.

It doesn't happen like that. Yes, I remember more if I write down something. But in longhand, it's very strange.

Thinking of handwriting and other things that get lost over time. I asked Hertzog if he shared this concern for disappearing things.

There's something alarming going on. The extinction of languages occurs with a much higher speed than the extinction of species of animals or plants. It's staggering. Of all the languages we have right now, maybe five percent will be left at the end of this century. And it's not just language. It means a worldview with a language, and just imagine the last Russian disappearing, and there would be no more Tolstoy, there would be no more music by Tchaikovsky, there would be no more poetry by Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. It's just unspeakable.


The drama is unspeakable. What is happening to people who live under the volcano, and how do they create monsters and demons and gods. New gods. And of course that's fascinating for a filmmaker because I'm into storytelling. And of course, the awesome beauty and ferocity of volcanic events is just staggering. And at the same time, the mythologies that are springing up are staggering and beautiful. Like John Frum, the mythical G.I., who would return through through the volcanoes on a Pacific island, and bring all the goods—chewing gum nad and jukeboxes and fridges or maybe even a Cadillac. Or in North Korea, the leader, the founding a card. leader father father of the socialists in North Korea, who has an almost godlike status now. After his death, he became president for eternity, and because of that we had seen a new president in North Korea anymore. His for son and his grandson have never adopted the title of president.


I mean maybe it's obvious but it does seem like film and documentary is it has this kind of anthropological role in capturing things that might be escaping us and that we may never get to see if not for these things. And I wonder if that's something that drives you.

Well, basically looking very deep inside of us what of us, how do we function as human beings. What is awesome for us, happened. what is storytelling for us, what is poetry for us, where are our fears and glories. So it's it's a very anthropological look at volcanoes for example. It's not what National Geographic would have done.


Thanks God I did that one!

What's that?

Thanks God I did the film and not National Geographic.

Oh yes absolutely. It's distinctively Herzogian. How did this project come about to begin with? What was the origin of it?

As you see in the film, it has a prehistory, I did the film forty years ago about a volcano in Guadeloupe, about one out man who refused to be evacuated. Ten years ago I met Clive Oppenheimer on a volcano in the Antarctica. So it's a recurring sort of thing. I just made a feature film which hasn't been published yet called Salt and fire, and marginally there is also a volcano visible and some talk about it, but to talk it not much. But it's somehow recurring, because they are so awesome and they have such an incredible beauty in and vigor and something very, very cinematic.

You work so much with Clive Oppenheimer, the scientist, and thinking about this anthropological impulse, I guess I wonder generally what your relationship is with science and scientists, being someone who I think is obviously not a scientist very much an artist.


Well, sometimes we cover common ground and we start marveling at things that defy our experience in the real world. Just very recently I was with scientists who are into the field of quantum physics, and what they tell me is kind of fascinating. That things that said correspond to our experience of the world do not of count The most minuscule world. A particle that is shot against a wall has to pass through a window left or a window right. Why does a particle choose the left window . party choose next andand and next time the right window. But the crazy thing is, there seems to be evidence that some tiny single particles pass through both windows at the same time.


So there's something of great awe in this, and something beauty something beautiful and almost poetic.

It's the unexplained I guess, it's the things that both scientists and artists deal with, right?

Yeah, yeah, and things except that somehow defy our experience. And I've somehow been after things in my film them that in a way defy our normal relationship with the world: a ski flier who defies gravity or moving a ship over the over a mountain. There's a dialogue in Fitzcarraldo where Fitzcarraldo is asking, "how do we get a ship over the mountain?" and And he answers, "like the cow flies over the moon." [Laugher] That's the answer. And I actually moved this ship over the mountain, in one single piece—it's not a technical trick!


I mean in many ways it feels like an experiment that you embarked on.

No, it's defiance the of gravity for the sake of gaining something awesome, for gaining sheer poetry. Sheer fever dreams in the jungle.

There's only so much planning that you can do for something like that. And for any kind of film, but I mean especially for something like Fitzcarraldo. It makes me think—to extend this metaphor, a scientific one, and maybe it's useless to do this—but it makes me think of films as a sort of experiment where you start off with a kind of question like a scientist does. You don't know where it's going to go. It might fail. There might be accidents along the way.

But they stay curious.

Right. You made a film about a volcano years ago. Even the title sort of suggests a theme that's in a lot of your films going into something that is dangerous.

You should be cautious with the title, it was not invented by me. I had a title that nobody wanted. But I had a partner in England who was completely excited and enthusiastic—we got, we got it. Everybody, everybody. So I say, "OK, let's call it the 'Into the Inferno.'" I could live with it easily. So there's no deeper meaning. But I know exactly what you mean. You have to expose yourself in all your awe, and all your search for beauty, and for something truthful out there, you have to immerse yourself into in a certain amount of danger. And we have been very prudent, as I as said in the film, need I think, in the industry, I'm the only one who is clinically sane. I'm saying that in contrast to the kind of mythology that has sprung up in the Internet, in public opinion, in the media. And it's not based on anything stupid that I have done, anything crazy I have done.


And working with a team of people.

I mean of course, whatever is out there in terms of public opinion, you cannot change. I just leave it as it is.

Do you have reservations about your reputation?

No, I don't care. I don't care. Of course, when you look at the Internet, you probably have seen it, I'm on Facebook, but it's imposters. I'm on Twitter, it's on imposters. you this There are voice impersonators. would There are voice impersonators. There are all sorts of things out and it's not me. And I think we in snuffly. I have to get accustomed to that, representation of self in the internet has entire completely completely changed in the last few years. And I can live with it. I don't really care much about it. Sometimes I feel all these doppelgangers are my unpaid unpaid bodyguards. Let them do battle, fine.

Sounds like the topic of an interesting film maybe. What was it what was the original title that you wanted for the. for Into the inferno.

Oh I won't tell you, I think it was boring.

Oh, come on.

Which normally doesn't happen to me, because I always have the beautiful titles. Like Land of Silence and Darkness, or … you just name it. I do have a good titles.

No, you do. They're great. And I mean Into the Inferno sounds sort of it's like Into The Abyss. I hope people don't think it's a sequel or anything to do.

Don't try to enforce a connection too hard because of because the title.

You know scientists often talk about having big problems and big questions that they confront over the course in terms of their careers. And I know again you're not a scientist but I wonder if for you you think of your work as grappling with a particular problem or a particular question and how do you answer that and how do you deal with that. And I mean that on a broad scale I mean I guess what's your problem what's your big problem.


I think I don't have a big problem per se. I'm not making a big problem about that one. I think my films are too diverse and too different in subject, but of course when you look at them in their totality you would immediately notice they belong together. I wouldn't know wouldn't what sort of big problem I have.

Well I guess your big challenge in terms of making any film I mean what's the main thing to sort of have to overcome if you can reduce it to one thing or a couple things.

Well I've always managed to in practical performance of doing films, one obstacle after the other. That's the nature of filmmaking. As a filmmaker you have to be capable to cope with it, and you have to cope with money and you have to cope with public opinion and you have to cope with censorship and you have to cope with bureaucracy. You have to be streetwise.

You deal with a lot of landscapes and nature, obviously, and also this sense of nature, as you describe it, being sort of indifferent. And now we live in a time where we have to deal with climate change and pollution and so on, and this notion that we are intertwined with nature. And we also live in the internet and kind of away from nature and so do you feel sort of an environmental urge or have an environmental message that you think is important?

I think there are others who pass it on better than me. Of course it's a huge question and in a way we are dealing with it in the segment of Ethiopia where a paleontologist who has found prehistoric workshops of obsidian tools, and we ask him, 'do we have another hundred thousand years?' And he gives an interesting answer: with all the mistakes we are committing right now, the human race will be in his opinion in a critical phase in about a thousand years from now. And he probably is right and we very quickly need to learn from mistakes otherwise we'll be just unnecessary here on this planet anymore. I mean, I think we were never necessary. But it's one of these things that happens in evolution, and we are here, so we better make the best of it. I'm against colonizing Mars as a safe haven. We should really look into making our planet more habitable than it is right now.


In Lo And Behold, which I loved, I saw you mention to Elon Musk that you would go to Mars if you had the chance.

I would, if I had a camera. If I had a camera, sure. But otherwise the idea of colonizing Mars in order to have a safe place for refugees from our own planet is a very misconceived idea. I believe it's not going to happen. It's one of those technical utopias that in my opinion is not going to happen. Other utopias will occur and they have to do with the internet for example.

What do you mean?

We'll see a lot of new things coming up because of the internet that may be very significant.

What sort of things are you thinking about? After your work on Lo And Behold are there things that you really think are important to focus on?

Well I don't want to be a prophet now, this let's drop this whole thing. But I know this is only a tiny beginning.

What was the experience like of making a [fictional] feature now versus the process of making a documentary?

You shouldn't think that these features exotic are an exotic some sort of stragglers. I have made seven or eight feature films in the last decade. Normally the problem is that some of them have not been as seen in theaters, like for example Queen of the Desert. A big epic film with Nicole Kidman which should have been shown more than a year ago but there was a glitch between distributor and producer over distribution distribution of certain costs. These things happen. But the film should have been out and much more prominent than any of my documentaries. As I said, at least seven or eight feature films in the last decade and that's quite a bit.


Given the changing landscape of the media world and the internet and Hollywood, has it become in some ways easier for you or has it become challenging in new ways, to get these films made?

No, not easier, but I acknowledge the phenomenal possibilities of the internet, for example. I did a film about texting and driving on YouTube, which had a phenomenal success and it actually changed the behavior of people who were driving and at the same time texting and that led to catastrophic accidents. And whoever of the millions of people who saw this will ever text while driving? I'm convinced of that. For example, the film about the internet. Of course originally was meant to be a film for YouTube—short, five-minute films. But Netscout, a very very big internet company that keeps track of data flowing and watching anomalies and so they understood this had to be a much bigger film, with much deeper plowing. And so I had some very good experiences with the internet. And, for example, Into the Inferno will be available on the 28th of October. And symbolically now, Netflix will push a button and the film will be available in 190 countries at the same moment. Seventeen language versions, and many more languages in terms of subtitles. So it's something worldwide. It's going to be shown in Bangladesh and Uruguay and in India and Finland. And United States and I don't know, Lebanon.

I hope that the people who watch it at home can project in on a big screen because I think it deserves that.


That's the downside. The simultaneous theatrical release is very small in comparison to the worldwide internet release. When you mentioned the size of screens, many people of course have very large plasma screens nowadays. What I regret, which is going to be missing, at least today, is the quality of sound you hear in the theater. I showed it in Telluride with a phenomenal sound system and you feel the rumbling under your seats, and somehow the vibrations of the subwoofers are passing under you and then you feel it exploding. So the phenomenon and the quality of sound will be missing, but I think fairly soon we'll have systems where the sound will be much improved.

I was thinking recently of Strozek and its depiction of America, sort of poor, rural America. This is a film you made decades ago and there's something about it, between the sense of hilarity and despair—I think about that and I think about the other kind of depiction of America we're seeing now through the lens of another character who's running for president. And I guess I wondered, to you if our country looks as strange as it did in the era of Strozek and as it does to me?

There's something in Strozek that doesn't make the film the film age. It's only the cars that are aging that you see in the film. In a way it seems to be timeless and it is a deep deep look into the heart of what America is showing. I don't know if you can make a connection to the election right now. We should be careful. But for me, I'm in a situation where I cannot vote because I'm not a citizen. But it's very interesting times for you voters out there.


It is, and it's interesting times generally. It's a little bit scary sometimes.

It's fine that you find things scary, but you don't need to panic.

My last question is related to filmmaking and videos. I've been thinking a lot about police videos that we see on the internet, that we see on television, and things that we have to confront that are pretty terrible to look at. And I wonder if you look at these things if you see them and you have an idea of how they fit into the history of cinema or how they fit into our culture and what they do to us? As someone who deals with visual images so much.

I think it's good that these body cameras for example exist. It is a new form of reality and we have to learn how to deal with it. My hope is that for example a policeman will think twice about whether he or she should open fire, depending of course on the situation. And I would assume that police are quite good people in the United States. I have no doubt whatsoever. And of course some of them are in panic or stupid or reckless, whatever. And those that are exceptions will think twice knowing that they are on camera. But maybe to some advantage. We have to see if to see how it plays out within the next decade or so. I couldn't care less about the cameras in the bank, when you are at at the bank, cashing a check and you have 15 cameras on you. I couldn't care less about these cameras. They don't have much effect. And bank robberies have shifted to the internet.

Another problem. Are you going to relax now? Do you get to go on a vacation after your year of—you have a new school, an online course, you've made how many films this year? Three?

And maybe the fourth one, which is unpublished, Queen of the Desert. No, it's okay. I love what I do, I'm kind of relaxed, I plow on quietly, and I'm never hectic. I'm not a workaholic. There are a couple of feature film projects looming and I have to deal with it fairly soon.

All right well good luck with that.

Thank you very much.

Thank you very much. I'll talk to you soon I hope.

Yeah alright. Take good care.

Into The Inferno is now playing on Netflix, with a small theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.

Read my review of Lo and Behold, and watch an interview with Herzog after he made Into the Abyss, a documentary about a man sentenced to death in Texas.