The Infinte Delights of Werner Herzog

In his talk with Paul Holdengräber, German filmmaker Werner Herzog appears as a man of detail, focused on the minutia of life. A scene from “Death Row”, the recent documentary TV series, portrays an inmate who ecstatically describes that if he had a thousand dollars and a wad of freedom, he would go to the supermarket, line up shopping carts and purchase as much produce as they can hold, so that he may perhaps remind himself of what an avocado tastes like, what peeling it feels like, what it all means to him who is deprived of it. Whether it is in this, or in Herzog’s recounting of obscure German poets and ignored sixteenth century painters, you get a sense that not only the devil’s in the detail, but also our sense of self.

Who are you looking at?

Holdengräber tries to push Herzog to define what his “gang of characters” is. There is an element of “herzogianism” to them, it seems, something stemming from the minutia of life that gets transcribed into his films and his writing, that something which allows Klaus Kinski or Bruno S. to be as real as they can be. You recognize solitude in all the leads of his works, the kind of loneliness that comes with great ambition, whether looking at Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God or even Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The latter emphasizes Herzog’s dislike of vanilla stories, the simplified versions of things which usually have a positive causality. In the case of Dieter, it was not some childhood dream that instigated his craving, but a near death experience as an enemy fighter jet flew by his house with guns blazing, commanded by a pilot whose glance young Dieter caught for no more than a fleeting second. And the line between reality and stylization, as the director admits, can be managed according to how the truth can be best expressed.

His focus on such documentaries has garnered Herzog great acclaim, establishing his hallmark narration with strong German undercurrents – something that would be a great addition to spice up the occasional university readings. Encounters at the End of the World, Into the Abyss or Grizzly Man are just some of the exceptional ones produced within the last decade – the latter, a phenomenal piece of analysis on the communion between man and nature. If you have seen any of them, you instantly understand Herzog’s critique of highly journalistic ventures into the world of documentary film making: it is not about putting together a convincing dissertation on film, but rather of finding an expression of humanism which transcends fact or fiction.

For a guy who worked in steel mills in his youth and first used a phone when he was seventeen, you can sense to this day a great fascination for technology. The talk began with Herzog detailing his experience of a 360 degree virtual reality device, which is astounding up to the point you realize there is considerable discomfort in the artificial detachment from reality. His remarks reminded me of Max Frisch’s book, Homo Faber, wherein the protagonist is critically viewed as a serial documentarian, who only perceives reality through the lens of a camera. It does sound kind of familiar and this theme of technological detachment has always felt embedded in the reality Herzog creates on film. But the value it brings needs to be mediated and understood within its limitations. It all parallels nicely with the legendary collaboration between Herzog and Kinski, who he admits that he never fought to control, but only to provide a frame to, for his (devastating) creative potential.

His book with Paul Cronin, “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed”, is the latest addition to the wondrous world of the man. Plentiful herzogianisms resides within, the natural consequence of a life tailored to oneself. Yet, I look at the connection between some of the topics discussed with Holdengräber, such as the potential for obscurity of talented persons and the advent of the Internet, and wonder if unrestricted access to platforms for artistic expression works for or against the former. Herzog would probably say that it all works in favour of those who have the desire to find themselves in the world which surrounds them. Or perhaps he would not say it, because some things are better left unsaid.

Originally published in the weekly newspaper of the LSE Students’ Union at the London School of Economics, The Beaver.