The One and Only Werner Herzog
Director Werner Herzog listens during an interview in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 17, 2013.
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Director Werner Herzog laughs during an interview in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 17, 2013.
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I n his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams , the German filmmaker Werner Herzog takes a small camera crew into Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, a cave in Southern France that contains what are thought to be the world’s oldest drawings and paintings, made some 35,000 years ago by Paleolithic man.
Discovered in the 1990s by a trio of spelunkers who wriggled their way into a cavern that had been sealed off for centuries by a rock fall, the cave is a hall of marvels. Glittering stalagmites and stalactites pierce the gloom. Charcoal drawings of creatures long extinct — the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros — look as if they’d been drawn yesterday. The floor is littered with ancient animal bones, and the art on the walls speaks to ancient dreams and visions. A child’s footprint is imprinted in the cave floor, next to the paw print of a wolf. Were human and animal there together, or separately, thousands of years apart?
No one knows, and it’s the mystery of how much we don’t know about the people who roamed the region at the same time as Neanderthals that seems to lure Herzog, whose documentaries and feature films, now spanning more than 40 years, are inquiries into what makes us human.
“It was as if the modern human soul was invented here,” Herzog says in the film in his deliberate, now much-imitated voice with its rounded tones and hypnotic rhythm.
“There’s something that’s profound about what he says, and how he says it, that is simply not phony,” said Bill Pence, head of the Dartmouth Film Society and a longtime friend of Herzog from the Telluride Film Festival, where Herzog is a frequent attendee. Pence invited Herzog to the college in 1986 for the presentation of a Dartmouth Film Award, and worked again to bring him this year as a Montgomery Fellow.
Herzog will present his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man at 7 p.m. this evening in Loew Auditorium at the Black Family Visual Arts Center, and on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. he will share the stage with Ken Burns in Spaulding Auditorium to talk about making documentaries.
That Herzog delivery, sometimes grave, sometimes comically deadpan, has spawned numerous affectionate parodies, some by Herzog himself. He appeared as a German industrialist on The Simpsons and played the villain in the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher , based on the thrillers by Lee Child. In an interview this week at the college, Herzog called his doppelgangers the “fake Herzogs.”
“There are quite a number of them out there. They answer questions in my name and create all sorts of things. It’s quite fine. They are like my bodyguards, they’re unpaid. Let them do battle out there,” he said, while sitting in an armchair in Montgomery House.
At 72, he’s no longer the bearded firebrand who, during the shooting of his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo , insisted that, for the sake of veracity, an actual steamship be lugged up one side of a Peruvian mountain and down the other, or got into heated, now legendary running battles with his star Klaus Kinski. His manner is polite and his speech is precise.
The reach of his work is broad: He’s staged operas, writes poetry and prose, acts as well as directs. His output is prolific; he’s made more than 50 feature and documentary films whose subjects include the Spanish conquistadores, German immigrants in Wisconsin, men awaiting execution on death row, the Antarctic, the American eco-activist Timothy Treadwell, who believed he was saving grizzly bears in Alaska, and the people who live along the Yenisei river in the Siberian taiga.
His most recent effort is From One Second to the Next , a 45-minute film about the dangers of texting while driving, as told both by people who have caused the deaths of others, and by people whose parents and children were killed or maimed in car accidents. A mother talks about her son, who lost the use of his legs after a car ran him down. The driver had been texting, “I’m on my way,” when she hit him. The film is sponsored by It Can Wait , a driver-safety campaign organized by AT&T.
From One Second to the Next is also a meditation on grief, guilt and redemption that shows to harrowing effect the perils of driver carelessness and inattention. It overturns, as do his other films, our assumption that life is under our control. There are no dramatic, slow-motion reenactments here, no carnage, but rather the impression of what is left behind, the ghosts of the second before and the second after the accidents, and then the lingering, painful aftermath.
Herzog was originally hired to make 30-second PSAs on texting and driving. “But once I was with the people involved with these catastrophic accidents I immediately knew that a longer form would be much more effective,” he said.
Herzog said he has no specific agenda on what films to make when. His projects find him, he said; he’s never had to search them out. “There’s no rule, there is no plan, there is no overriding idea.”
Once he has worked out the parameters for being in one of his documentaries, asking a potential subject, “Are you really willing to be in a film like this?” and getting a yay or nay, he has his own imperative.
“From my side I have to find the right voice immediately,” he said. When he interviewed the death row inmates, for example, for his films Into the Abyss and On Death Row , he had only 15 minutes to talk to them. “If you don’t find the right voice instantly you won’t get anywhere. ... You have to connect in a very deep way but you have to find the right tone.”
His subjects, particularly the men on death row, can “tell from more than a mile distance if somebody’s a phony. ...You have to be a straight shooter,” Herzog said.
In Into the Abyss, he said, he told one inmate convicted of murdering three people that although he sympathized with the inmate’s appeal to stay his execution, that “doesn’t mean I have to like you.” Nor did his interview imply an effort to exonerate him. He is not a journalist and doesn’t want to be one. “That’s always a problem I see with looking at documentaries. Documentaries haven’t divorced themselves clearly enough from journalism.”
Herzog is aiming for, Pence said, what he has called the “ecstatic truth,” something that can’t be apprehended only by recitation of facts, figures, diagrams and argument and counter-argument.
Herzog has the gift of the penetrating, pithy observation. Not too many people could casually intone, as does Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams and in the interview, that one of the experiences of being in Chauvet is that, “of course you are confronted with your self. In other words, the silence is so profound that you hear your own heartbeat.”
His distinct style of narration is something that he’s become accustomed to, he said. “I think audiences like it and I make films for audiences, there’s something more authentic about it.”
Authenticity is something he values, whether he is working with professional actors or non-professional actors. “I only see persons who are great on screen, and I see others who are bad on screen. For me if somebody has an intensity on screen and radiates something on screen and is a great actor, it doesn’t matter if they’re trained or not,” he said.
He has a similar process, he said, in choosing people for his documentaries. “It’s a process that is close to what I do in feature films, to find people where you have immediately the feeling after a few words on the telephone that something will come across on the screen. ... It’s casting, or something like an equivalent to casting.”
Herzog lives in Los Angeles with his wife. There are problems and issues here, as there would be in any country, that he doesn’t overlook, but there are also the bedrock principles that he admires.
While preparing to film a science-fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder, he discovered footage shot by astronauts aboard the space shuttle. It was “extraordinarily beautiful so I immediately tried to acquire the rights. Somebody said, “What are you after? You don’t have to acquire the rights, it’s the property of the people.”
Because the footage was shot under the auspices of NASA, it was in effect in the public domain. “The film all of a sudden became possible because of this extraordinary attitude. So ‘We, the People’ count. ... And you have a great achievement which is free speech, which is more free than in other countries,” Herzog said.
Grizzly Man will screen this evening at 7 p.m. in the Loew Auditorium. Tickets are $8, and $5 for students, and children age 12 and under.
“From Grizzlies to Gettysburg: Ken Burns and Werner Herzog Talk Shop,” a public discussion, is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday in Spaulding Auditorium. Tickets are $8, and $5 for students, and children age 12 and under.
For more information, go to hop.dartmouth.edu.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .