Instead of a Box Of Chocolates, the Thrill of Speed – Hans Günther Pflaum on Werner Herzog
sind meine Filme – Teil 2 – nach 30 Jahren”,
(i.e. I Am My Films - Part 2 ... 30 Years Later)
director: Christian Weisenborn
This phenomenon has always enjoyed a long tradition in German cinema and Werner Herzog is not the only to have been affected by it. Whereas any old mediocre feature film can sometimes turn into an unexpected hit – usually because the audience is obsessed with one of the film’s stars, the documentary film has led a wallflower existence at the box-office. Television is also partly to blame. Broadcasting slots for longer documentaries are somewhat of a rarity, many documentary filmmakers struggle to make a living. There is of course one surprising exception – animal documentaries. Ever since the days of the famous German zoologist, Grzimek, and his film Serengeti darf nicht sterben (Serengeti, 1958/59), animal documentaries have over and over again managed to reach broader audiences.
Cynics might want to put it like this – documentaries can indeed be successful, provided they have more animals in them than people. Against this rather difficult background Herzog’s work in the field of documentary might well trigger even more annoyance, as his works have never really been made in a strictly “documentary” sense, they are full of “cross-overs”. Herzog was never satisfied with merely observing and filming reality. In his documentary films one is never quite sure what was the original natural situation and what the director invented, i.e. what he staged. This is what makes his work so fascinating and unusual. There were times in fact when Herzog made documentaries for German television – those days are however long gone. If you want to know the reasons for this, you will have to ask around in the editorial offices of the TV companies. From a business point of view producing documentaries for TV in Germany is not really a viable undertaking; all the various instruments for financing filmmaking apparently still do not suffice to support such projects, in particular as the art-house cinemas are under increasing economic strain all the time.
“Grizzly Man”, for example, was sold to over 20 countries, but did not make it at all onto cinema screens in Germany – it came out only as a DVD. People were queuing up to see it in other countries – the film brought in ten million dollars in USA.
I also have a hard time understanding that. Maybe it is because Herzog, who lives in USA and is always off in some far-away place in the world, is not really physically present in Germany; he does not do the talk-shows or make any other public appearances. If you were to ask students today in one of Germany’s film schools, how many of Herzog’s films they knew and if they had been influenced by him, I am afraid you would get a fairly depressing answer.
This does not however just apply to Werner Herzog, but to that whole generation of filmmakers who started making films in the late 60s and early 70s. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz or Werner Schroeter – all of them were, and still are, better known abroad than at home in Germany; many of their films made it in Germany only after they had been a hit abroad. For example, Herzog’s film about Kaspar Hauser, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), which was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, only made it into German cinemas with the help of this “tailwind” from the Cote d’Azur.
Werner Herzog was a member of the generation of filmmakers who, above all in the 1970s, paved the way for the “New German Film” to international prestige. Like many other German directors of that generation – including Rainer Werner Fassbinder – he learnt the skills of the trade by teaching himself. What role did this play in the development of his particular hallmark?
Back then there were no film schools in Germany. If you wanted to study filmmaking, you had to go abroad, like Volker Schlöndorff. The only alternative was to teach yourself. For either artistic or political reasons nobody wanted to have anything to do with the film business establishment - Alexander Kluge called it the “Tearjerker Trust”. This led to many up-and-coming young filmmakers looking elsewhere for inspiration. Werner Herzog, as he says himself, found his inspiration above all in the art of the Middle Ages, in painting and music. This is reflected quite clearly in his films. They are almost all far removed from the usual dramatic approach á la Hollywood, the cutting is slower and they differ greatly from the prevailing mounting style.
In Herzog’s documentary films there is also something else – the “staging of reality”, as I like to call it. Conventional lecturers in the art of documentary filmmaking at the film schools would probably have nipped this development in the bud. In the case of Herzog, as well as with Fassbinder or Kluge, you can see exactly how the director has found and developed his own personal hallmark by working on films – and not by being forced to practise or having the skills instilled in him.
Werner Herzog grew up in the provinces of Bavaria, far away from all things cinematic. By the time he was 20 he had already made his first documentary film entitled “Herakles”. “Herakles” is also the first film in the edited collection, which goes on to complete the spectrum with his sci-fi fantasy, “The Wild Blue Yonder”. Is there anything like a recurring or central theme in the films of Werner Herzog?
Several recurring themes are to be found in his extensive output of films. There are leitmotifs that fascinated Herzog at the beginning and still do right up to the present day – one might even call them obsessions. His films, in my opinion, focus insistently on these poles. When we were developing ideas for the Goethe-Institut’s edited collection of Herzog’s films these leitmotifs were groundbreaking and set the tone for each section: creation and apocalypse, beginning and end of language, warriors and perpetrators, lift-off and come-down.
Not a soulless entomologist
Werner Herzog’s documentary films are strongly influenced by the subjective perspective of the author, who distrusts the “truth of naked facts”. I know impressions can be deceptive, but don’t his films give you the feeling that Werner Herzog is more a “Bavarian” artist than a German one?
A difficult question! As a born-and-bred Munich man of course I would like to see Herzog as a Bavarian, but somehow I can’t. Apart from maybe the feature film, Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass; based on a book by the Bavarian author and filmmaker; Herbert Achternbusch) he never made a film based on a story that was decidedly “Bavarian”. In other countries Herzog has at times been labelled as being “typically German” – although I even have my doubts about that, too.
Maybe I can describe Herzog – both the artist and the person - better by telling you an anecdote. It goes way back to the year 1972. Herzog had just finished shooting the film, Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit (Land of Silence and Darkness), a documentary about deaf-and-blind people. The main role was played by Fini Straubinger, who at that time lived just round the corner from me in a home for the blind.
Inspired by the film, I decided to pay this wonderful, old lady a visit. I knew there would be an interpreter present who would enable us to communicate with the aid of a special keyboard alphabet. Back then people said that Herzog observed his characters with the soulless interest of an entomologist. This is why I asked Fini Straubinger whether Herzog had been in touch with her since the shoot. “Oh, yes,” she said, “he was here last Sunday.” She went on to say that he had come on his brother’s motorbike and had invited her to go for a joyride on the bike to the lake at Starnberg.
The old, deaf-and-blind lady went into raptures about the whole experience, about the wind in her hair, the air and the thrill of speed. There and then I realised that Herzog’s crazy idea was not just one of his fantasies, but was a sign of human affection – more affection than in the flowers and boxes of chocolates I would normally lavish on the women I interviewed. From that moment on and right up to the present day I have always seen the supposedly “crazies” in Herzog’s films in a different light – not to mention the films and the filmmaker himself.
conducted the interview. He ist is one of the two heads of the Südpol-Redaktionsbüro Köster & Vierecke and editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Politik.
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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