When I was in college, we had film societies, and they would project 16 mm prints on various walls around campus. It was magic. It was on those walls that my friends and I discovered Werner Herzog. His movies blew us away—Nosferatu the Vampyre; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Every Man for Himself and God Against All (known somewhat unfortunately here as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser); Land of Silence and Darkness; La Soufrière; Heart of Glass; The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner; and Fitzcarraldo. The titles alone still give me a chill. We inhaled his movies. We got drunk on them. We quoted them endlessly and they were fun to quote, especially when they were narrated by Werner himself. I had a friend who constantly justified his terrible behaviour by adapting a line from La Soufrière—“I only survive because I am the baddest guy in town.” Herzog’s movies were different from anyone else’s. They captured our imagination. They held us prisoner. They made us question everything we’d been taught. They made us want to be brave. They made us see the world as if we were aliens visiting this planet for the very first time. They made us want to be filmmakers. Every one has left a lasting impression, an image or a scene, the feeling of a splinter in my mind. I don’t mean a story—stories often fade and blend together over time—I mean a splinter, something you can’t get out.
I think of the opening of Aguirre—a huge vista of a mountainside in the Amazon, an establishing shot, you’d think. But the shot goes on a long time, so long that you wonder if something may have gone wrong in the projection booth, and then you see it: a line of people like ants winding their way through the landscape. This is not an establishing shot at all. It is suddenly about all of humanity, about nature and human enterprise, about the insignificance of human endeavour.
In the magnificent Grizzly Man, there is that accidental shot on the hillside when the camera was left on and captured the grass blowing in the breeze. Then Herzog’s voice comes in. He tells us that this is cinema; it is more cinema than all those Hollywood movies that get shovelled down our gullets, and he is right. I will never see a hillside in the breeze the same way again.
And in My Best Fiend, when the butterflies land on Klaus Kinski, it seems like a stroke of luck. But such things happen again and again in Herzog’s movies. How does he do it? I can only conclude that it’s something about his very being, his way of engaging the whole world with his body and soul, that makes these things happen. Nature obeys his cinematic will.
Several years ago, I had the honour of spending an evening with Werner and his wife, Lena. She told a story about how the two of them were on a plane and they encountered terrible turbulence. She turned to Werner for comfort. He said, “Don’t worry, Lena, one way or the other, the plane will come down.”
It was my great pleasure to introduce “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?”—a two-hour conversation between Paul Holdengräber and Werner Herzog, which took place at the New York Public Library on February 16, 2007, as part of the Live from the NYPL series. As I finished my introduction, the room went dark; then there on the screen were Fred Astaire and George Murphy dancing and singing “Please Don’t Monkey with Broadway” in Broadway Melody of 1940.
— Nathaniel Kahn
PH: Werner Herzog and Fred Astaire? Who would have thought of the connection? Is there one?
WH: Yes, there are quite a few connections. I love Fred Astaire movies. Some of his movies are the best Hollywood has produced. Most of what Hollywood does is not my cup of tea.
WH: Broadway Melody of 1940 gives such a strange, completely invented aspect of New York City. You cannot get further away from the realities of this city when you see “Please Don’t Monkey with Broadway.” This is the wonder, the miracle of cinema—that you live through ecstasies, that you live through the images that are only the images of collective dreams. And here in this Fred Astaire movie, you have this kind of lightness of vision which I like, and you have something very cinematic: movie movies.
PH: Can you talk about “movie movies”? I know you’ve said that Fred Astaire for you is essential filmmaking, as well as kung fu movies and porno movies.
WH: Don’t misunderstand me, but there’s something very essential about pornographic films because they have moved technology to quite a degree. The driving force, for videos I believe, was pornography, so we should not underrate it completely and dismiss it as something which shouldn’t be on the screen. Of course, pornography is a more private thing and people watch it in seedy motels, a sort of motel-room ugliness.
PH: But sometimes they’re much better than movies, other movies.
WH: Much better than pretentious movies, these artsy-fartsy films that I just can’t take any longer, so I—
PH: You switch to pornography.
WH: I switch to Anna Nicole Smith, I switch to Wrestlemania. [laughter] Yes, because, I believe, Paul, that that’s one of my dictums. The poet must not avert his eyes.
PH: That sounds like something Hölderlin might have written.
WH: Well, yes, I adore Hölderlin, and he is probably the greatest of all German poets. But he was so deeply involved in the world in a dangerous way that he lost his mind over it. His language goes to the very, very borderlines of the German language, my own language. I believe he became insane after he travelled on foot from Bordeaux to Frankfurt. He arrived in Germany raving mad and unfortunately spent his last thirty-five years or so locked up in a tower and living with the family of a carpenter, I think, in the city of Tübingen.
I also love the Baroque poet Quirin Kuhlmann, a lot. Nobody knows him, not even the experts in German literature. But Kuhlmann was also someone who explored the borderlines, the very, very edges and the deepest of roots in our language. Strangely enough, I feel like him because I’m not capable of irony; and he took things literally, everything literally. For example, he dug in the ground with a spade with some other strange man and tried to find the stone of wisdom. He probably staged the very last Crusade. He set off for Constantinople with two hysterical women, a mother and a daughter, and tried to set up a Jesus Kingdom in Constantinople. The women abandoned him in Venice and took off with some sailors. The ship left without him, and he jumped into the water and almost drowned trying to reach the ship. But they hoisted him on board and took him to Constantinople, where he was immediately imprisoned and spent quite some time there. He actually died while he was travelling on foot, criss-crossing Europe with all these strange sects and wild fantasts in religion, philosophy, language. He arrived in Moscow and incited some sort of a religious riot, which was misunderstood by the authorities as a political riot, and he was burned at the stake together with his books.
PH: This sounds like a Herzog script.
WH: It would be wonderful. Kinski could have been the right one to play him. But what I mean to say is that Quirin Kuhlmann was deeply into the very essence of life, dangerously far into it, and perished in it. There’s nothing wrong perishing in the travails and tribulations of life. I have no problem with that, personally.
PH: You bring up so many of what one might call your obsessions, though I’m not sure you will take well to that word. One of the things that comes up is the importance of walking—you sometimes liken walking to filmmaking and see a relationship between the two.
WH: I would be careful to call it walking. There is no real expression in English. I would call it travelling on foot. And travelling on foot is something that we have lost in our civilization. But physically we are made for travelling on foot, to move at a certain pace, and to see things with intimacy. En route, you will have only substantial encounters. Once, I ran out of water on a hot day and there was no creek, nothing. So I had to knock at the door of a farmhouse and ask whether I could fill my canteen. The farmer said “Sure,” and asked, “Where do you come from?” And I said, “I come from Meiningen.” He said, “How?” And I said, “I came walking, well, a thousand kilometres.” “Really?” From that moment on, we had an exchange of only very, very fundamental human things. He told me the story of his last day in the Second World War, when he was captured. He had not told his family this story. So you have only, only, only the most essential encounters. I have walked around Germany following the border. I even walked to Lotte Eisner when I was told she was dying.
PH: You walked from Munich to Paris.
WH: Yes, instead of flying, even though I was told on the phone: “Lotte is dying.” I have to explain—Lotte Eisner was a pre-eminent film historian who fled Germany the day Hitler took power and who, as one of the great film historians, wrote the definitive study on Expressionist cinema, Weimar cinema, The Haunted Screen. She was probably my most important mentor; she was very supportive from very early on. When I received the call, I knew it was too early, she should not—she must not die, I would not allow it. I just would not let her die because I was walking one million steps and somehow I knew she would be out of hospital and she would still be alive. And she was.
PH: And she lived for some years.
WH: Yes, she was already eighty or so, nobody knew exactly how old she was, but she lived another eight or nine years. It was very strange, because then we had a very casual way to say important things. She nibbled on some cookies and had some tea, and she said, “Listen, there is this spell on me that I must not die, but now I’m almost blind, and I cannot walk any more, and I cannot read, and I cannot watch movies any more, could you—would it be okay if you lifted that spell off me?” And I said, almost casually, “Yes, Lotte, sure, you may die now,” and then we went on talking about something else, and she died two weeks later. And it was right that she died then. She was saturated with life and ideas and movies and everything that I admire about a cultured person. She was a person with incredible spirit and enthusiasm—so, we need more Lotte Eisners.
PH: A great agitator of ideas. As you say, “The collective agitation of mind.”
WH: Yes, that is actually my definition of culture.
PH: Many people may not know that you now make your home in Los Angeles.
WH: Los Angeles, indeed.
PH: And if I’m not mistaken, you are known to say that Los Angeles is perhaps the only place in America with substance. [laughter]
WH: Yes, you find it funny, I know. But I’m speaking of cultural substance. If you look at New York, which would be a close candidate, the real substance of this city is finances and not so much culture. Culture is more being consumed here. Things get done in Los Angeles. As ugly and as vulgar as it may appear on the surface, and as bizarre as things are—the stretch limos, the people who talk seriously about pyramid energy, and a neighbour who is a very reasonable, decent man, whose cat was kind of freaked out so the neighbour called the cat psychic and the cat psychic spoke to the cat for only $160 for three minutes and the cat calmed down. It is utterly strange and utterly bizarre, and yet you have this wild exuberance of collective, very often vulgar, often intense and interesting dreams.
And Los Angeles is much more than just filmmaking. You find some of the most fascinating writers and musicians and mathematicians, for example. You just name it. And I love the fact that only thirty minutes from my doorstep by car there is the Pasadena mission control centre for the Mars rover landings and for Galileo. They allowed me to be in there and film; and out of that originated a film that is very close to my heart, The Wild Blue Yonder, a science-fiction fantasy. So in many ways Los Angeles has some intensity of cultural life.
PH: Let’s move to your early years, the very first few years you spent in a small village near Munich—
WH: In the mountains. “Near Munich” sounds like a suburb, but it was the remotest place that my mother could find. She got frightened because the house next to us was bombed, and our house was half destroyed. I was under a huge pile of debris, glass shards, and bricks. I was only two weeks old but unhurt. So we fled into the mountains, and we got stuck there. I grew up without knowing technology. I’ve said it many times, it’s strange that I’m making films when I did not even know that cinema existed until I was eleven, when a travelling projectionist arrived at the schoolhouse. I made my first phone call when I was seventeen. This gives you a little background.
PH: What are your earliest memories of that time?
WH: Well, for sure, the end of the war. Sachrang, where I grew up, was the last unoccupied little pocket that remained. When it fell to the American troops, we played on the balcony and tossed down the white flag. The farmers were really frightened when we did that. I remember the commotion. And I remember that on the slope next to the house, I talked to a very big black man—for me a Moor, because I knew about Moors from fairy tales. I found him most fascinating. He talked to me for two and a half hours. I had a wonderful conversation with him, and afterwards I claimed that I spoke American with him.
And I remember my mother ripping us out of bed in the middle of the night and carrying us up the mountain slope. The entire sky was illuminated red and orange, and she said, “Boys, I woke you up because you should see this. The city of Rosenheim is burning.” Rosenheim was forty kilometres away and the entire sky was illuminated from it. You do not forget things like this.
PH: And you had an early experience where you felt you were in contact with God.
WH: Yes, well, on Santa Claus day, Nicholas day—which is the fifth of December for us—Santa Claus comes with his companion Grampus, who is some sort of demon spirit, and he admonishes you. I was so frightened that I crawled under a sofa. Grampus pulled me out, so I peed my pants, and all of a sudden there in the door stands a man in brown overalls with huge oil spots on them. He looked at me so kindly and so mildly I knew this was God Almighty—that he saved me. Later I learned that he was some sort of a maintenance worker at the little electrical plant behind the house. He was just curious and had walked in and leaned on the door and I loved him.
PH: What games did you play as a child? I know that you spoke about Berlin and Munich as in some ways a great place for children to be after the war because there was a lot of rubble for them to play in.
WH: Yes, not just rubble. When you see images of Berlin right after the war, it was an incredible, surreal sort of a place. Not only Berlin; I think 715 major German cities were wiped out more than 90 percent. It was an incredible, surreal stage of blocks of bombed-out buildings. So the children who grew up in cities owned the whole block of bombed-out buildings; playing their games there and inventing the world. For us in a secluded, rural area, it was different—there we had to invent our games. There was nobody who would teach us games. There were no toys, so we invented our toys. I remember—I’m still proud of this—we invented an arrow, which was a slice of beechwood, a flat arrow that would sail through the air. It was slightly humped. We didn’t know anything about aeronautics but somehow figured out that it would sail on like a Frisbee. We did not shoot it with a bow, but we had a whip and a little hook on the string of the whip, and we whipped it away and it would sail on and on and on much farther than you can shoot an arrow.
PH: As an adolescent, what was your view of America? I know you said you started to watch films late.
WH: I had very little experience of America with the exception of right after the war. My knowledge of Americans then was that they were fishing for trout; so we found them little worms, and they gave us chewing gum. So America was a trading partner. [laughter] And we knew it was dangerous with them around because we found a lot of weapons that were dropped and hidden by the last SS men fleeing into the mountains. At the age of four I was in possession of a submachine gun, a functioning submachine gun, and my brother had a hand grenade. I tried to shoot a bird, a crow, actually, because we were always hungry. Hunger is one of the great reminiscences of that time, two and a half years of hunger.
Later when I went to school in Munich, everybody in my class went wild over Elvis. I went with them to a movie theatre when the first Elvis movie arrived. It was a very strange scene because everybody was seated quietly, all of them young people. They watched the film, and then, like one man, they got up and systematically and quietly took the place apart. [laughter] They ripped out the seats and started to destroy the theatre—without shouting, without rioting—just quiet, methodical destruction of the theatre. It was a massive event, but it didn’t interest me. It did not affect me like the other kids in school, who were raving about Elvis and wanted to see when the next movie was coming, and would anybody dare to play the next Elvis movie.
PH: But something must have affected you in this collective grouping of people in a darkened room.
WH: Yes, but at that time, I didn’t see much more than let’s say Elvis films and Dr. Fu Manchu and Zorro and things like that. It didn’t dawn on me that I would make films. That came when I was fourteen, fifteen. At the same time I had a dramatic religious phase. I started to travel on foot and I knew I was going to make films, and I walked around Albania, following the border.
PH: When you started to make films, and as you grew up, what perception did you have of American films once you started to know a bit more about them?
WH: Not much actually, but I had a question about that today. I spent some time with a film class at Columbia University and I was asked about the influence of American cinema, about landscapes, and about men who are doing physical things and who are trying to make the best out of their situation. They kept talking about Howard Hawks. And I had to stop them and say, “I have not seen a Howard Hawks film yet, and I have seen only one film by John Ford.”
PH: Which one?
WH: It was The Searchers, about a young woman who was raised by native Indians.
PH: What did you see in the John Ford film?
WH: I liked how he deals with landscapes—like an inner concept of America, not just a backdrop, something essential about the American soul. I liked that, but American cinema didn’t affect me that much. In fact, cinema didn’t affect me that much, and it still doesn’t. I’m not a very frequent moviegoer. A year ago during the entire year I think I saw two films and that was that.
PH: You claim to have no irony. Really? What do you mean? Obviously there’s a big distinction to be made between irony and humour.
WH: Humour, yes, I’ve got that. All my films are full of humour. In a film like The Wild Blue Yonder, people are rolling in delight and laughter, they laugh more than at Eddie Murphy films. [laughter] And My Best Fiend—people really laugh at that because it’s so absurdly intense and so, so crazed. So sure, there is a lot of humour. Irony is a very different concept philosophically. Everything that is said or shown functions at a different abstract metaphorical level, but I do not make those connections—that’s so often a French thing. I can’t be in a conversation with French people in a café; they immediately show how beautiful their language is, and they listen after the sound of their sentence. They speak ironically and I’m sitting like a Bavarian beer drinker with them and I answer them straight.
So I must say, it’s very, very disappointing, meetings with the French. [laughter] And then much of the French language is so much just the mouth. They are not that deep-plowing and they like the bon mot. And the one you never should trust is Godard. He’s not even French, but he tries to out-French the French. And what does he do? Because it sounds so good and sounds so intelligent, for the sake of the bon mot he says, “Cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.” I mean, how can a human being with an ounce of brain say that? [laughter] And he’s considered an intelligent man.
PH: This speaks to some of the comments you have made about cinema verité.
WH: Oh yes, now we are coming into what is assumed to be truth, cinema verité. I’ve insulted them by naming them “the accountants of truth.” Of course they were really miffed. But I think there is something I’m after, something much deeper, some sort of an ecstasy of truth, something where we step beyond ourselves, something that happens in religion sometimes, like medieval mystics, an understanding of God in the form of ecstasies. It’s possible in music and in poetry and in cinema. But truth is extremely elusive.
PH: In cinema, is it particularly possible in your view to arrive at that ecstatic truth? It’s a medium that perhaps—
WH: Well, I’m trying, I’m striving to achieve it. Maybe sometimes I got kind of close, but I do not really know. I’m not a good judge. I’ve just written a screenplay for a feature film, and a central image in it haunts me because it’s so strange and points at what truth—or what truth of vision—is all about and how misleading it can be. There is a monastery in Rome, Santissima Trinità, and in the cloister, when you look along this corridor, on the left-hand wall, there is a painting of Saint Francisco di Paola. And you see it clearly, you see a saint in some sort of rapture under a tree. But when you approach this image, the more distorted and the more incomprehensible it becomes. When you’re standing right in front of the image, the saint has disappeared. The whole image has stretched out over thirty feet in length; and the face of the saint, his hands, everything, has morphed into a landscape. The landscape has actually been identified as the Strait of Messina. You even have sailing ships passing by. What fascinates me about it is the very clear point that the painter makes: when you seem to have understood something, when you think you have grasped the truth of an image, the closer you get, the more incomprehensible it becomes, until it finally morphs. The same physical strokes of a brush morph into a landscape. It’s absolutely mind-boggling, and it somehow will be the central image of a film that I’m going to make.
PH: Landscape is clearly of great importance to you. In My Best Fiend, there’s a moment where you compare your view of landscape to the view that Klaus Kinski has.
WH: In this case with Kinski, the backdrop was Machu Picchu. You have a sugarloaf-formed, very, very intense mountain in the background, Huayna Picchu, and Kinski wanted to stop ahead of his army and pass through the ruins of Machu Picchu. And I said to him, “This is postcard kitsch now and I’m not into that, it’s not a backdrop.” I want to have a much more limited frame for the landscape, where it’s completely ecstatic, not recognizable as a backdrop but like a part of our innermost being, our soul.
PH: Does “ecstatic” mean “invented”?
WH: To some extent, yes. Nathaniel Kahn actually mentioned this image at the beginning of Aguirre—yes?—there is something like an ecstasy. Of course a landscape is partially invented in the way it is shot.
PH: You’re also especially interested in the way landscape connects to music.
WH: In The Wild Blue Yonder, the music was created before the images, and I set up a certain rhythm of floating in this music. It was an extraordinary achievement by the musicians, actually. They were led by an avant-garde Dutch cello player, Ernst Reijseger; and there were five Sardinian singers—very prehistoric, primordial sort of shepherd singing—and we added a singer from Senegal who sings in his native tongue, Wolof. The music itself is totally unrehearsed. The Senegalese singer was sitting there and I said to him, “Mola, I changed the text of the music and I slowed down the rhythm.” He said, “Yeah, I am a singer, don’t tell me, I know how to—I’ll blend in.” And I said, “But Mola, I changed the text, and it’s this and that.” And he said, “Don’t worry, I’m also a poet.” [laughter] And we turned on the microphones, and they sang and they played. It was completely unrehearsed and we have two and a half hours, all in all, of music. It’s some of the most intense work I’ve ever done with musicians in my whole life. And the music somehow changes the images, and in this movie the landscape is completely invented. It is about astronauts who find a planet with the entire atmosphere frozen. All the clouds are frozen to ice, and they are drifting in liquid helium, and they explore this place, and only by dissolving into particles, only by dissolving into sheer light, can they return.
Quite often in my films we deal with gravity—like in Fitzcarraldo, how do you pull a 360-ton boat over a mountain? Or The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner who flies like a Frisbee. And there is of course Fred Astaire, who gives the appearance of someone who is not subject to gravity, and I love him for that.
PH: By way of gravity, let’s get to one of the core subjects of our evening, which is why—or is—the twentieth century a mistake?
WH: Yes, well, not only have we witnessed the worst cataclysmic wars that the world has seen; not ony have we had communism and fascism, the Nazis, and all the consequences—it’s many, many other things. I do believe that the highly technological civilization that we are living right now is not sustainable, period, and it cannot continue much longer like this. Something is utterly wrong. It is not just the twentieth century, it just became very massively visible in the twentieth century.
PH: For you, the mistake, the misguided nature of human beings, has a very long history. It started when Petrarch went to the Mount Ventoux.
WH: Yes, well, that’s one of the sins of civilization. Why do we climb mountains? I think that there is a disrespect of the mountains. Petrarch, by the way, did not consider it a conquest of the mountains. But when you read about the mountain climbers of the 1950s—I have been with some of them, like Reinhold Messner—they always had the feeling, “Yeah, we have to conquer it.” They speak in military terms of conquest, which I have abandoned by now, because there’s nothing more to conquer. And I think that was a mistake, that it was the end of something mysterious about our planet; the same insipid quest for being the first on the North or South Pole.
WH: Adventure! I cannot stand the term adventure nowadays—I lower my head and charge—it has degenerated into such an obscenity that you can go to the travel agency and book an adventure trip to New Guinea, to the headhunters, to the cannibals. So I really do not like this any more. Why did Petrarch climb a mountain, actually? I think he was looking more into the interior. He was stunned by what he saw. But he’d had a serious warning from an old shepherd. Because fifty years before, this shepherd had climbed the mountain as a young man and regretted it deeply as if it were a sin, and Petrarch had a feeling of that. He had a little volume of St. Augustine, Confessions, with him, and once up on the summit he opened it—randomly, he claims, he swears to God—and St. Augustine says, “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolutions of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” So this is a very, very significant moment in the history of humankind. Number one, he should not have climbed it. There was an arch sin in taking all mysteries away from our planet, and tourism is one of the consequences. Tourists and tourism has devastated cultures; it has had devastating effects.
PH:. What if someone at this point said that your films, some of your films, are sinful precisely insofar that they also go and not only climb mountains, but climb them with ships behind them and go in some way to the extremity of what a human being maybe shouldn’t be doing.
WH: No, I think that’s something different. It’s an inner image, it’s some sort of a deep metaphor, something dormant inside of us that I make visible. A metaphor for what I can’t tell, but I know it’s a huge metaphor, and it gives us insight into ourselves, our visions, our dreams, our nightmares, whatever, you name it. But actually I should make an elliptic detour. I think that the trouble began at the beginning of Neolithic times, [laughs] where for the first time people started to live a sedentary life. And breeding. Breeding cattle, breeding the first dog—though breeding a dog was not sinful because you would continue in your nomadic existence with a dog as a hunting companion. But the breeding of the first pig was an arch sin because it made people sedentary, and I do understand why for the Muslims and the Jewish people it’s something abhorrent to eat pork. There’s something wrong about it, they have a sense of sin. I shared this idea with Bruce Chatwin, who became a very close companion to me in some respect, because we both shared this view and both of us travelled on foot.
PH: I would like to know more about your relationship with Bruce Chatwin, as well as with Ryszard Kapuściński.
WH: I had a sporadic, very intense friendship with Bruce Chatwin. Since we were both travellers on foot, we understood each other. And when he was dying—and I did not know that he was so, so close to death already—he wanted to see a film I made on tribesmen in the Southern Sahara, Herdsmen of the Sun. He could see it only in ten-minute portions and would drift away to unconsciousness. There was less than a skeleton of him left, but he would wake up and shout, “I’ve got to be on the road again! I’ve got to be on the road again!” I said, “Bruce, you should, but you are dying, you can’t.” And he said, “Yeah.” He looked at himself, and he said, “Yeah, but I have to—the rucksack is too heavy.” He had a leather rucksack made by an old saddler in central England, and I said, “Well, if you really recover, ever, then I’ll carry the rucksack.” And then he understood that he would never walk again and he was dying, and he gave me the rucksack. I do not have much physical property, but that is one of the dearest things I have in my possession. And Kapuściński, yes, with Kapuściński, we had similar ways of being barefoot, of being down to earth.
PH: He refers to his own work as “literature by foot,” and I’d like to ask you to comment a bit about Kapuściński, and perhaps come up with a taxonomy of the good traveller, because there may be very few since Neolithic times.
WH: That is easy. The traveller on foot is virtuous; tourism is sin, period, as simple as that. But Kapuściński shared these feelings, and I got fascinated by him because he had more insight into Africa and our civilization than probably anyone I’ve seen.
When I was eighteen I left school. I wanted to see the cataclysm of civilization in the Congo after its independence. And not only was organization gone, and marauding bandits around, and tribalism, but there was cannibalism. I thank God on my knees that I never made made it to the border. I fell very ill south of Juba City in the southern Sudan, almost died, and somehow scrambled back. Kapuściński was one of the very few who actually made it across the border, also through southern Sudan, and he was there for one and a half years. All of the reporters were killed off, disappeared, were never seen again. He was, I think, with the exception of one person, a Canadian I think, the sole survivor.
And Kapuściński—he was in the eastern Congolese provinces in that time—in one year was arrested forty times and condemned to death four times. So I asked him, “Ryszard, can you tell me what was the worst for you?” and he said, almost casually, “Well, I was condemned to death—that was okay, but they threw me into a cell and I was there for a whole week; and day after day they kept throwing more and more poisonous snakes into my dungeon.” And he said very casually, “That’s why in that week my hair turned white,” and then continued talking about something else. So that is Ryszard Kapuściński.
PH: And what was your worst and most dangerous?
WH: Similar things. I was in Africa in some jails, very badly mistreated, beaten, ill. I don’t want to go into details, but it was bad. I mean, as bad as it can get. And, of course, it forms a perspective on the world, and you do know after you have seen things like this, you know the heart of men. And it is part of my profession, actually, to know the heart of men.
But, Paul, before we go into other things, I would linger a little on the twentieth century. And one of the things that is quite evident and looks like a good thing in the twentieth century is the ecologists’ movement. It makes a lot of sense, the fundamental analysis is right. The fundamental attitude they have taken is also right, but we miss something completely out of the twentieth century, which is—
WH: What went wrong in the culture, yes. That is, we see embarrassments like whale huggers, I mean, you can’t get worse than that, or tree huggers, even, such bizarre behaviour. And people are concerned about the panda bear, and they are concerned about the well-being of salad leaves, but they have completely overlooked that while we are sitting here probably the last speaker of a language may die in these two hours. There are six thousand languages still left, but by 2050, only 15 percent of these languages will survive.
PH: So we are paying attention to the wrong things.
WH: No, to pay attention to ecological questions is not the wrong thing, but to overlook the immense value of human culture is. More than twenty years ago I met an Australian man in Port Augusta in an old-age home and he was named “the mute.” He was the very last speaker of his language, had nobody with whom he could speak and hence fell mute, fell silent. He had no one left, and of course he has died since then. And his language has disappeared, has not been recorded. It’s as if the last Spaniard had died and Spanish literature and culture, everything has vanished. And it vanishes very, very fast. It vanishes much faster than anything we are witnessing in terms of, let’s say, mammals dying out. Yes, we should be concerned about the snow leopard, and we should be concerned about whales, but why is it that nobody talks about cultures and languages and last speakers dying away? There’s a massive, colossal, and cataclysmic mistake that is happening right now and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it. So that’s why I find it enraging that people hug whales. Who hugs the last speaker of an Inuit language in Alaska? So it just makes me angry when I look back at the twentieth century, and I’m afraid it continues like that. And we have got into a meaningless consumer culture, we have lost dignity, we have lost all proportion.
PH: In terms of preserving culture, preserving language, we can think of this library, which has many millions of books underground, seven floors of books, and it goes under Bryant Park.
PH: Paradise, as you called it, but when we were underground, you asked the librarian: “In the case of a holocaust, what would we do with the precious books?” And the librarian was rather anxious about that question. [laughter] No provisions had yet been made, and I don’t know if they’ve been made since your question. But I remember the librarian wondering how to answer it. And he said “Well, in the case of a holocaust, maybe we will come here.” And you said, “Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” Do you remember that?
WH: Yes, it sounds misleading in the context of the previous, but please continue. [laughter]
PH: Well, the books are the repository of our memories and our culture. So that these languages that are disappearing as we are talking now have a place where they’re archived, where they’re kept, even if the culture itself has become mute, it still can be studied.
WH: But most of the six thousand still-spoken languages are not recorded in written form. So then they disappear without a trace. That’s evident. But, yes, books, sure, we must preserve them and we must somehow be cautious and careful with them, because they carry our culture—and, of course, those who read books own the world, those who watch television lose it. So be careful and be cautious with the books.
PH: And what you do with your time.
WH: Yes, but we do have disagreements of what are the most precious ones that we would keep. Of course, you would go for James Joyce immediately, and I have my objections, because I think he’s—
PH: Who would you go for?
WH: Hölderlin. No, I mean James Joyce isn’t really bad, but—
PH: James Joyce is on a trajectory for you—
WH: Which went somewhere wrong—
PH: Somewhere wrong, starting with Petrarch and then going to someone such as Laurence Sterne.
WH:. Yes, Laurence Sterne is somehow a beginning in modern literature, where literature really became modern but also went on a detour and the result—
PH: A detour from what?
WH: Detour from what, yes—that’s not easy to say, a detour that leads let’s say to Finnegans Wake, where literature should not end up. It’s a cul de sac, in my opinion, and much of James Joyce is a cul de sac, per se. But at the same time that he was writing, there were also people like Kafka, for example, and Joseph Conrad. I have a feeling there is something hardcore, some essence of literature; and you have it in a long, long tradition and you find it in Joseph Conrad, you find it in Hemingway, the short stories, you find it in Bruce Chatwin, and you find it in Cormac McCarthy.
PH: Let’s go back—or forward—and talk about how it is part of your profession to see the hearts of men, and how you choose your actors.
WH: I can give you an example that comes from making this science-fiction film, The Wild Blue Yonder. I met the astronauts of a space shuttle mission because I wanted to engage them to take part in the movie as actors. We were sitting in a circle, and the officials who introduced me left, and now I was sitting with five of them, who had been many times in space, and I looked around and was kind of embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. All of a sudden, like a relief, I looked into the face of one. He was the pilot and a mission specialist, Michael McCulley, and he looked like a very good solid man. And I said to him, “Sir, Mr. McCulley, as a child I grew up in a small village in the mountains and I learned how to milk cows, and since then, I can tell by just looking into a face that this is a person who knows how to milk a cow. You are one of them.” And he laughed and said, “Yes, I milked cows in Tennessee,” and that broke the ice. [laughter] He really knew how to milk a cow. And how did I know? I cannot tell how I knew, but I know the heart of men, and I know who can who can milk a cow, and this is part of my profession. [laughter]
PH: You have also said that a filmmaker needs to know how to pick locks.
WH: Yes, among other things, you have to have a certain amount of criminal energy. [laughter] You have to be able to forge documents and to do all sorts of fraudulent things en route to make it possible to make a film.
PH: I want to know more about your work with Mick Jagger, whom you cast in one of your movies, though his scenes never made it to the final movie.
WH: Actually some of his performance was preserved in a film that Les Blank made, Burden of Dreams. But Fitzcarraldo started out with Jason Robards and Mick Jagger, who was playing his sidekick, a retarded man from England who carries a heavy barber’s chair on his back. But Robards became so ill that he had to return to the States and was not allowed by his doctors to come back; and then I could not have Jagger in the second round of shooting because he had to go on a world tour with the Rolling Stones. So I had to write out all of the scenes with Robards and Jagger. A great loss that I have suffered in my life as a filmmaker. I wish I could have made the film with him, let’s say Kinski and him.
But Jagger has not been fully understood by other directors as a great acting force. He’s a very, very talented, intense man, and he’s also a wonderful comrade. We gave him a car in Iquitos; and there were strikes and shootings and all sorts of things, and our actors and extras were frightened to cross town to get to the river. So Mick said, “I’m driving them. I’ll play the chauffeur for you.”
But somehow there was not much question in my heart that Mick Jagger would be wonderful for this part. There’s not much searching going into finding the actors but a keen awareness of the people around me. I see them. I spot them. I spot the man who milks the cows, and I spot the man who would be perfect as the retarded Englishman delivering the soliloquy of Richard the Third. Mick Jagger did it in a way that you just could drop dead, he was phenomenally good. But I threw everything away and only by coincidence Les Blank grabbed some of the snippets and somehow held on to them.
PH: You see a physical aspect to filmmaking. You’ve opposed aesthetics to athletics.
WH: It’s a little bit of a construct to talk about this kind of opposition. I just got sick and tired of overacademic zealots who tried to talk me into very complicated academic concepts. I said, No, it’s not so much cerebral, academic work that I do, it’s much more physical. It comes from physically understanding; for example, the jungle. The way in Rescue Dawn we plowed through the underbrush of the jungle in a way that is extremely physical. Whenever it’s as physical as that, I’m good as a filmmaker.
PH: You’ve spoken about yourself as a good soldier of cinema.
WH: Yes, but that’s more like a metaphor of someone who tries to hold out at an outpost that has been abandoned by almost everyone around, [laughter] and not being afraid, and having a sense of duty. I have a sense of duty. And I’m saying that without pretension.
PH: Duty to—
WH: Yes, duty to what, to whom? That’s a difficult question. I know I have it and I know I have little choice. Lotte Eisner would be someone I have a duty to. Even when I was desperate, when after ten years no one wanted to see any of my films, and I was an abject failure, she said, “You will not give up, you have a duty, and you will not abandon making films. You will go on.” And in her sense, there is a duty to see things that others do not see yet, and make it visible and make it known to us.
PH: Paul Cronin’s excellent book Herzog on Herzog opens with this thought by David Mamet: “Those with something to fall back on, invariably fall back on it. They intended to, all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently.”
WH: Yeah, I think that’s a good choice as some sort of a motto. The fact is I have no fallback position, it’s true. There are no trenches behind me into which I can jump and duck.
PH: And your work comes purely out of your imagination.
WH: Not only. I’m not inventing everything, actually. Many of the things I’ve seen and lived through I transform and bring to the screen. In the way, for example, Joseph Conrad would experience the jungle in the Congo or in Southeast Asia and remember all these things he had seen and experienced and write short stories about it. You have the feeling the man must have experienced it all.
PH: And what do you think of the Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell?
WH: I have to give him credit for being a magnificent filmmaker, but he was also very much misguided as a human being, somehow with his compass not intact. And of course I have an ongoing argument with him throughout the film, even though he was already dead for about a year. There’s something that fascinated me about him because he was so bold to expose himself to his own camera with all his follies, with all his, I say it in quotes now,“stupidities,” with all his generosity, with all his grandiose designs—which were quite dignified and great designs. It was clear to me that this was not a film about wild nature, it was going to be a film about human nature. Treadwell is unique because he offers us a glimpse into the deepest abysses of the human soul, and we owe him our admiration for that courage and the single-mindedness he had. It doesn’t matter that much how wrong his basic assumptions were, and how he romanticized wild nature.
PH: And he was wrong because he trespassed.
WH: Yes, a borderline between us and wild nature that we should not trespass. We should not hug a bear, period. [laughter] We should not love the bear, we should respect the bear.
PH: This follows up on your refusal of exploitation, I think. I’m just wondering if you gave yourself a private screening of the footage from The White Diamond, of what was behind the waterfall.
WH: Yes, I’ve seen it, but it’s not that interesting, because it’s fairly dark. Very, very strange because it’s overgrown with mosses and very strange green things and you have one and a half million swifts nesting back there. But it was evident I would not show it in the movie since I was asked not to, because it has great meaning for the tribal people there. Sometimes it is much better to have a question and no answer. Sometimes it’s better just not to know and not go any further and stop. And retrace your footsteps and not expose the footage.
PH: In closing, let me ask you. Why did you shave your moustache? [laughter]
WH: Yeah, it was a good one, I must say. Somehow it was some sort of a defence and I could hide behind it like I am hiding behind an adopted name. I liked it. I wish I could do my work anonymously, like the painters in late medieval times, like the master of the Cologne triptych, but of course nowadays with the media and so on there are too many people involved, you cannot hide. But the moustache was some sort of a bastion behind which I felt kind of safe, but then in travails and tribulations of life I kind of lost it.
Paul Holdengräber is the director of Live from the NYPL, the Public Programs series at The New York Public Library. He has taught at Princeton University, Williams College, the University of Miami, and Claremont Graduate University; and has written essays and articles for journals in France, Germany, Spain, and the United States.