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Close "Encounters" with Werner Herzog

One of my earliest transcendent experiences in movies was watching Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” for the first time. He has never quite equaled that achievement, in my opinion. But neither has anyone else. He’s one of the greatest living filmmakers, even though Abel Ferrara wants him to burn in hell.

He seemed in a good mood when I talked to him on the phone about his new film, “Encounters at the End of the World.” And why not: it seems that after 40 years of making movies he’s finally getting some notice from audiences in America.


PK: With Encounters at the End of the World, you’re the first filmmaker who’s shot on all seven continents.

WH: [laughing] I have to stop you right there, because this is kind of embarrassing,[laughs]. I do not want to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records.

PK: I see this was never a goal of yours.

WH: No, no, of course not. But you see, there’s also something significant about it. Early in the film Encounters at the End of the World, there’s a fork – a caterpillar driver, and he comes from Bulgaria, and has graduated in philosophy and comparative literature, and he says something very beautiful. He talks about his childhood and how he started to venture out into the world. His grandmother read The Odyssey to him when he was a child, and about the Argonauts, and he said, “In my mind, I started to travel and explore, and in that moment I fell in love with the world.”And I thought, “My goodness, that’s exactly what I have done in many of my films.” I went out, ventured out, just being in love with the world. And, ultimately, I’m doing this film in Antarctica because I love this place, and the love of images under water, under the ice shelf of the Ross Sea was the fascination that drove me down.

PK: And even though you’ve vowed not to make a movie about penguins, the penguins actually do make an appearance.

WH: They do, yes [laughs]… I swore to everyone I’m not going to do another film about fluffy penguins, however the penguins I filmed were so good I had to include them in the movie.

PK: Do you discourage people from reading into the penguin that wonders off by it’s own into the wilderness, or the group of people with buckets on their head wandering aimlessly and getting lost? Do you discourage people from reading something metaphoric into those?

WH: Well, I think that it’s not a big metaphor, let’s face it, when you see the film as an audience, with the people with buckets over their head in order to simulate a white-out, it’s absolutely hilarious. And I saw a screening last night here in New York, and people laughed harder than in an Eddie Murphy movie. So there’s a lot of humor in that, and of course it’s….that’s what I like about the film, and we should not overload it with lots of meanings. Of course the penguin is strange, and looks like a deranged, almost insane penguin that is marching straight into the interior of the continent. No one can stop him. Yeah, but it’s very strange and, of course, kind of sad to see him like that.

PK: We shouldn’t read into him that he’s a deranged artist or something like that.

WH: No, it’s…..I personally do not read too much into it. A disoriented or deranged penguin is a deranged penguin and nothing else.

PK: Nonetheless, this film seems a bit rosier about nature, and human nature, than “Grizzly Man” a few years before. Have you become more of a mellow person since then?

WH: No, no, it’s just the kind of subject I’m dealing with in the films. Of course, “Grizzly Man,” it’s not that I invented the story, I relied heavily on incredible footage that Timothy Treadwell shot, and of course we know he was killed and eaten by a bear together with his girlfriend, so it’s a very tragic story, and no matter how you turn his story, it’s always going to be a tragic one. And of course nobody deserves to die like he died. And when you do a film in Antarctica and all this joy of being down there and being allowed to set your foot on this continent and exploring the incredible beauty of this place, of course it will translate into a different general mood.

PK: It’s almost mystical at the end, that even though you point out the dangers of global warming and there’s kind of a doom and gloom prophecy about the end of the human race, there’s this kind of idea that you can mystically commune with nature.

WH: In a way yes, but many of the scientists are totally convinced that our presence on this planet is not really sustainable, which doesn’t make me nervous. I think the last dinosaurs were not nervous either, the last ones to trod the ground. I think the trilobites before they died out were not nervous about their disappearance. Sponge, apparently, have a good chance of surviving us, lizards among the higher order of species, lizards probably have a better survival chance.

PK: Well, that’s reassuring.

WH: [laughs] It is, yes. But there’s certainly no permanence in our existence here on this planet.

PK: So you don’t think people should take this as a warning about global warming?

WH: It’s not only global warming. There are many other factors that will contribute to our demise. Global warming is just one significant element.

PK: I’ve seen almost all your films, and I haven’t seen any with any real political content, unlike those of your friend Errol Morris. Do you feel above politics, or you just don’t think it’s the place of film to concern itself with that?

WH: No, I’m not above politics because I’m part of a society. So it’s evident, whether you like it or not, you’re a part of a living community, and the body of – which in effect is always political. But I’m not a political talent. A man like Errol Morris in a way is more talented, I guess, but he’s not really a politician either; he’s a storyteller, he’s a filmmaker, and he gives us deep insight into things we normally overlook. And he’s a great filmmaker, and there’s nothing wrong about that.

PK: I spoke to Errol and other nonfiction and documentary filmmakers in the last year, and I asked them, what is the difference between a nonfiction documentary film and say a fiction film. Do you have a distinction?

WH: No, it’s all movies. And all my documentaries, put it in quotes only please, all my “documentaries” are somehow secret feature films anyway. I stylize, I stage, I invent. For example in “Encounters at the End of the World,” I just declare some things that we are seeing as pure science fiction. And all of a sudden you see the science fiction in it, if it were not of our planet.

PK: Like the divers under the ice.

WH: Under the ice. Or, for example, how strange things are getting – there are these long endless tunnels carved right under the very South Pole, into the ice, deep underground, 70 degrees below zero, and at the end of one of these tunnels, under the mathematically true South Pole, someone, a maintenance worker apparently, has dug some sort of a shrine into the ice and stashed away a deep-frozen sturgeon. So how strange can it get? You can’t even invent something like this.

PK: Do you have any idea of what the meaning of that might be?

WH: I think we should not ask. I actually know what happened, and why the sturgeon was stolen and why it was put there, but if I start to explain it, all this image and the event will lost its mystery and its beauty.

PK: I know you like to participate in everything that goes on in your movies. Did you climb into those tunnels and go on a dive under the ice?

WH: I went into the tunnels. You actually see me crawling ahead of the camera. You do not recognize me because you never see my face because I was guiding the camera because it was such low crawl spaces sometimes, and it was very, very tough for the camera to follow. Under the ice, I really wanted to dive under the ice, but this is only open for the best of the best of the divers because it’s too dangerous and the resources of Antarctica cannot be wasted away by a big rescue action or whatever. And they actually had fatalities and you just don’t go under the ice. I know my limits, and in such a case, I would delegate.

PK: I noticed the film is dedicated to Roger Ebert, and it reminded me that one of your feats was to walk 500 miles to pay a visit on another film critic or film historian, Lotte Eisner. Do you have an affinity for film critics?

WH: No, I think Lotte Eisner was not a film critic. She was a co-founder of the cinemateque, and she was some sort of mentor for me in spirit, and so when she was going to die, I walked from Munich to Paris because I didn’t want to allow her to die, and she actually was out of hospital when I arrived. But Roger Ebert, I don’t care whether he’s a critic or not. You see, I’ve always tried to be a good soldier of cinema, and I feel pretty much alone, and all of a sudden, for decades as a great, wonderful soldier of cinema out there and that’s Roger Ebert, and I feel a kinship with him in a way, and now he’s so deeply afflicted by illness, he’s been… he cannot speak for two years or so, and he still soldiers on, watching movies and writing about them, and I dedicated the film in deep kinship and admiration to him. I said to him, “Roger, this is a film you cannot review. You can only enjoy it or hate it or whatever, but you cannot review it because you cannot review a film that is dedicated to you.” And instead of reviewing it he wrote a very, very kind letter to me. And it was a personal letter and I told no one about it, but Roger actually posted it on his website a few months later.

PK: That’s a big sacrifice because a favorable review from Roger would change your box-office.

WH: No, come on, let’s face it. Having a good review from Roger Ebert, it doesn’t change a film, and whether it changes the box-office or not, sometimes you must not care about it.

PK: It seems like at times you go out of the consciousness of the mainstream, and then you come back for a film like “Grizzly Man.” Do you think you’re now in another phase of your career?

WH: Well, I’ve never thought about career in my life ever. I don’t have a career; I only have a life. But as I live in the United States, I married here in the United States, it has done good to me and I always felt, yes, I am moving here and I’m out for new horizons, new subject matters, new perspectives, new alliances, new forms of distribution, and it has done good to me.

PK: I heard you are doing a remake of Abel Ferrera’s “Bad Lieutenant” or a sequel?

WH: No, it’s not a remake nor is it a sequel. I think it’s a completely different story, the same way the last James Bond film is not a remake of the previous one. It’s an entirely different story. I know that Abel Ferrera is ranting wildly, it’s wonderful to have  the thunder around before you even start working, but I think he’s under the impression that I’m doing a remake, so I can actually assure him it’s not going to be that. I think he’s got a good face. I think I should try to engage him as a drug dealer.

PK: He’s quite a character.

WH: Yeah, maybe.

PK: You weren’t familiar with him before you came up with the idea of doing this? I read somewhere that you didn’t know who he was.

WH: I don’t really know much about who he is. I only heard he made this film “Bad Lieutenant.” I have no idea what else he made. But I’m told he’s a gruff, vociferous person, which is beautiful, yes? We need these people.

PK: Had you seen the movie and said, “I want to do this again?”

WH: No, I have not seen it.

PK: So you were approached by –

WH: No, I got a screenplay which was already finished, and no, what was really intriguing is that Nicolas Cage was interested in it, and it turned out that Nicolas Cage really wanted to have me as a director. And the prospect to work, No. 1, the prospect to do a film noir was very intriguing, and the prospect to work with such an exceptional man like Nicholas Cage is quite fascinating.

PK: And this would be a studio, a Hollywood studio production?

WH: No.

PK: And “Rescue Dawn” was that a studio production? I was reading a “New Yorker” story and it seemed like there was a lot of …

WH: No, it’s not a studio production. Only 24 hours before the film was shown for the first time, MGM acquired it. It’s as remote from Hollywood as it can get. The producer – one of the two producers – came from the trucking business and is running some seedy nightclubs, and the other producer is a basketball star, Elton Brand, so how far can it get from Hollywood?

PK: But it was more money than you’re used to?

WH: No, I have made much bigger films.

PK: Oh you have?

WH: Yeah sure. Like “Fitzcarraldo,” or “Nosferatu,” “Aguirre,” “Kaspar Hauser,” or “Invincible,” or… I have made at least a dozen movies that were much bigger and more much expensive.

PK: Oh, OK. I was wondering … the movie “Rescue Down” is about a pilot who’s captured. Does that give you any insight, or change your opinion at all about, say, a presidential candidate?

WH: Oh, we should not [laughter]… draw some kind of parallel between a shot down pilot who was the only American POW to escape from Vietcong captivity. No, but it’s very, very exciting times in America right now, with what I see. Very, very fascinating political climate right now, and I truly, truly like to see what is emerging right now.

PK: It’s also a very volatile period for films that are documentaries.

WH: Well, it always is, in a way. I wouldn’t say that political life is really that volatile, but all of a sudden there is a revival of the sense of politics, and the most, the most wonderful of all things, was to see how many people would turn up for caucuses or primaries. All of a sudden it’s a revival of the sense of politics. We, the Americans, are shaping our political life. We are shaping our future, that’s wonderful to see.

PK: Are you a citizen?

WH: No, I’m saying that as a guest in your country. I’m married to an American citizen. She is actually voting, and I see the excitement of her, and I see the excitement of all the friends around, so it’s very, very good times in terms of politics.

PK: Do you think Dieter would have made a good president?

WH: No. [laughs] He was way too wild. No, no of course not. McCain actually is one of those who was shot down and in captivity. But I think he would make a better president than Dieter Dengler.

PK: I see. But he didn’t escape.

WH: No, he didn’t. Being imprisoned in captivity in Hanoi itself, that was impossible to escape.

PK: Another film that I heard you were making, maybe it’s not true, but I heard you’re making a film with David Lynch?

WH: In a way, yes, but that’s way down the line. The film has to find its window of opportunity. David is actually going to be the executive producer but I wrote the screenplay and will direct the film. But there’s yet another film, and I’m signed up for it with Focus Features to do a film in Southeast Asia, “The Piano Tuner.” So it’s just one after another, and I really have to work hard, very focused. I’m afraid we have to finish soon.

PK: OK, there’s something I’ve always been curious about. The late singer Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division has been featured in a couple of films lately. In them it’s shown how he committed suicide after watching your film “Stroszek” on TV. Did you know about this?

WH: I heard about it, I heard about the film because I think they wanted to acquire some excerpts of my film “Stroszek,” which he apparently saw before he died.

PK: How do you feel about it?

WH: I heard about it, yes. I haven’t seen the film but I heard about this case. My feeling is it’s not a film that can drive anyone into suicide. There must have been massive other reasons for that. And um… it touches me in a very strange and deep way. I wish I had met the man, I wish I had been his friend, I may have… I may have made a film with him.



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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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