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5 Surprising Musical Inspirations for Werner Herzog’s Cinema

One of them is 'The Lion King.' Another is a choir of shepherds from Sardinia.

by Gabriel Herrera
May 16 2017, 5:16pm

Werner Herzog photo courtesy Jeff Thibodeau/Red Bull Content Pool

Last week, Werner Herzog sat down with Todd L. Burns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to discuss the relationship between music and film as a part of Red Bull Music Academy's Director Series. At 74, Herzog's work spans over 60 films, documentary shows, and television series, as well as 19 books and screenplays. He's directed 27 operas, acted in over a dozen films, and participated in the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

Herzog's exceptionally prolific career might be daunting to the recent initiate, but the barriers to entry are low: every piece of Herzog's work rewards because it bears the indelible mark of his uncompromising style, one that first began to take shape during the New German Cinema movement beginning in the late 1960s. His films were shot with a bare-bones crew and an austere budget, with scripts often improvised after shooting had already begun. The surreal, unsteady nature of his work is an aesthetic choice, sure, but also a byproduct of his feverish guerilla filmmaking—not to mention his sardonic wit, frequently relayed via voice-over in the director's characteristically deadpan voice, which has become a kind of celebrity in itself.

Along the way, Herzog's established relationships with a number of close musical collaborators, notably Florian Fricke of the Krautrock band Popol Vuh and experimental composer Ernst Reijseger, who have helped score many of his films. In a discussion spanning nearly two and a half hours, Herzog revisited memories of working with both artists (and others), mused on the role of music in his films, and gave plenty of his quintessentially badass life advice. He also revealed some unlikely—but also very Herzog—musical inspirations. We compiled some of them below.

1. Elvis

By his own admission, Herzog grew up isolated from most music. It wasn't until his late teens that he began to connect with it in any significant way—after a 1960s American pop culture export caused pandemonium in his hometown. "I only 'got' the message when the first Elvis movie came to Munich, and I was there at the opening night," he explained. "Twenty minutes into the film, the young kids, mostly young men, stood up from their seats, and quietly and methodically demolished the theater. And I thought, 'This is big!'"

2. The Lion King

During the talk, Herzog criticized most film soundtracks for being "too cerebral, [with] too many ideas behind [them]. [Only] in a few instances, it actually fits." He cited Hans Zimmer's soundtrack for The Lion King as a notable exception, citing the motifs drawn from South African choral music as "phenomenal" and "Hollywood at its best." Met with surprised laughter from the audience, Herzog insisted he was serious. "There's something so big [in the music]—anyone could see that. It doesn't take someone like me to recognize that."

3. Fred Astaire

When asked about other movies with an innovative approach to music, Herzog gave another surprising answer: "Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow [in Swing Time]." Herzog's eyes lit up as he explained his unusual choice: "The music isn't that great, and he's not a great actor or anything. [But] he's a wonderful dancer, and he dances with his own shadow. [...] It's one of the greatest moments in cinema, because it's so reduced: movement, light, shadow, music. [...] All of a sudden—to our surprise—cause and effect does not count anymore, because he crouches down and all of a sudden, his shadow stands on [its own]. He tries to catch up with him and sing with him."

4. Popol Vuh

One of Herzog's earliest collaborators was Florian Fricke, an early electronic music pioneer and mastermind of the Krautrock band Popol Vuh. After cameos in Herzog's early films as a pianist (an instrument Fricke played proficiently until inflamed ligaments forced him to stop), he became a frequent contributor, scoring Aguirre, the Wrath of God and seven more of Herzog's works over two decades. Fricke was the second person to own a Moog Synthesizer, and composed the score to Aguirre using the Moog and a tape replay keyboard similar to the Mellotron to create its eerie, transcendent theme.

"Literally you have to imagine a machine that runs parallel sound tapes," Herzog explained of the device. "Each tape is a different pitch of tone, and you can access it and play it [like] a choir organ. [Fricke] said, 'I would like to do something with a choir organ," and I said, 'Yes. [...] Create the space, create the mystery, create something we have never seen or heard.'"

Fricke's otherworldly scores enhanced the far-flung landscapes that appeared in Herzog's films, a combination that helped shape his style and distanced the director from his more Eurocentric peers from the New German Cinema movement during the 1970s. Aguirre offered something audiences had truly never seen or heard: ominous synths and phantom choirs set deep in the vast expanse of the Peruvian rainforest.

Although their creative partnership lasted for many films, Herzog and Fricke eventually drifted apart. In the mid-70s, Fricke sold his Moog to fellow German composer Klaus Schulze (best known for his work with Tangerine Dream), and started gravitating towards new styles of composition, sounds that would eventually be absorbed by the New Age movement. Herzog did not approve. According to the director, there was a "kind of a pseudo-philosophical babble going around [Fricke]...I don't like all that kind of stuff, and I told him." Fricke passed away in 2001, and despite their differences, Herzog remembers him fondly: "I always liked his presence, and we had a wonderful relationship, and I truly miss him."

5. A choir of shepherds from Sardinia

When asked to create an installation for the 2012 Whitney Biennale, Herzog at first declined, claiming that he "did not feel very comfortable" with contemporary art.

"What I've seen of contemporary art is garbage," the director explained. "I feel uncomfortable; there's too much cerebral, too much—in my opinion—conceptual, and I really do not feel very comfortable with it. And I said, 'No, I'm not going to do it.' On the phone, the curator said to me, 'But aren't you an artist yourself? Artists love to participate in the Biennale!' And I said 'No, I'm not an artist, I'm a soldier,' and hung up."

After some coaxing from his wife Lena, Herzog eventually recanted, and the result was an installation called Hearsay of the Soul. It was the filmmaker's first ever video art installation, combining projections of landscape etchings by the 16th century Dutch artist Hercules Segers with sonics by the composer Ernst Reijseger and a choir of shepherds from Sardinia, Italy. Herzog described the choir as having "this very strange, very ancient way of singing." "I wanted to create something strange," he said. "Almost a climate of expectation. After about a minute of darkness, light would slowly come on five screens, and elements of Hercules Segers' prints would show up." Looking back, Herzog described the piece an opportunity "to express things that I cannot express in literature, nor in movies."