Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Gospel According to Herzog

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Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo

When you’re a voracious reader with a large library, you sometimes get the feeling that there aren’t any books left to discover. There are certainly books left to be read, both old and new, but you’d like to think that you have a decent idea of the territory. Yet it’s always possible to be surprised and astonished by a book you didn’t know existed, which is exactly what happened to me last week. The book is A Guide for the Perplexed by the German director Werner Herzog, which I received as a belated holiday gift from my parents. I’m a Herzog fan, but not a completist: I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored material, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. But I’m stunned by this book. It’s a revised and expanded version of Herzog on Herzog, a collection of his conversations with Paul Cronin that was originally published more than a decade ago, and I’m filled with regret at the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance—I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all.

Over the last few days, A Guide for the Perplexed has practically been attached to my hand, and I’ve already devoured hundreds of pages, browsing in it at random. It’s a huge book, but every paragraph explodes with insight. Even if you don’t have any interest in Herzog, you should pick up a copy just to read for your own pleasure: you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately arrested. Here are a few lines picked almost at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Peter Zeitlinger [Herzog’s cinematographer] is always trying to sneak “beautiful” shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.

Those who read own the world. Those who watch television lose it.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s own stories, which are seemingly inexhaustible. He provides his own perspective on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by his jacket and a catalog in his pocket, and he wanted to keep going—or the threat that kept Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) But there are countless relatively unknown stories that jump off the page: Herzog posing as a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys he needed for Aguirre, forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo, stealing his first camera, shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. We hear about the unexpected targets of Herzog’s disdain, from David Bowie (“The man is a neon light bulb”) to legendary firefighter Red Adair (“He was extremely meticulous, cowardly, and overly bureaucratic”), as well as his contempt for cinéma vérité, a panel discussion on which he concluded by saying: “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings. Happy New Year, losers.”

Yet little of this would matter, aside from its enormous entertainment value, if we weren’t also treated to a dazzling array of insights on screenwriting, cinematography, sound, financing, documentary filmmaking, editing, and storytelling of all kinds. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example sustains and nourishes the rest of us. In On Directing Film—the other essential book I’d recommend to any aspiring filmmaker—David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he even tells attendees at his Rogue Film School to watch Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as illustrations of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog himself says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2015 at 9:44 am

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