“We’ve poisoned the food,” says Dieta Sixt, gesturing to the buffet table in her spacious Georgetown row house.

The guests titter as they anxiously ogle the target of the hostess’ quip: legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

“I’ll serve as his food taster,” volunteers a smart aleck.

Herzog freezes, his fork just inches from a chunk of fresh salmon.

“That’s very funny,” he says softly—almost whispering—in his strangely lilting Teutonic English. “I was once in prison in Africa and they really treated me badly. There were some very unpleasant things they did to me. It was sheer terror.”

For several drama-charged minutes, Herzog holds the audience captive with stories of appalling brutality: He mentions a guard who meticulously licked the food before handing Herzog his meals—morsel by saliva-soaked morsel. Now, in a dining room dominated by a Dalí above the fireplace, Herzog gleefully mimics the guard’s sadistic “food-tasting” and finally wolfs down his salmon, to the delight of the guests.

Honoree of this Sunday-afternoon luncheon, Herzog is in Washington for a retrospective of his movies at the National Gallery of Art, a series sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Washington, of which the gracious Sixt serves as director.

But Herzog is much more than a film director: As he has just demonstrated, he is also a master storyteller and an adventurer. And as his followers will tell you, a guru and a genius.

Obsessed with human extremes, Herzog goes to incredible lengths to make his films, risking his own life and those of others. He plunged into the depths of the Peruvian jungle for Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), which starred Klaus Kinski as a crazed Spanish conquistador (Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski when the temperamental actor tried to flee the set). In La Soufrière (1977), Herzog ventured to the mouth of an active volcano after the population of an entire island had been evacuated. For Fitzcarraldo (1982), he hauled a boat over a mountain in the Amazon, just to be able to film the feat: Several Indians died as a result.

Herzog is fascinated by—and passionately sympathetic with—the eccentrics and outcasts who populate his films; he has made dead-on documentaries about American weirdos, ranging from paranoid televangelist Dr. Gene Scott to a convention of auctioneers. He hypnotized his entire cast for Heart of Glass. Two of his most critically acclaimed films starred Bruno S., a schizophrenic man-child.

More recently, Herzog steered a helicopter over the oil fields left burning in the wake of the Persian Gulf War: He filmed the scene as if he were an astronaut visiting a strange planet in the throes of apocalypse. The resulting movie, Lessons of Darkness, is closer to Satan’s Lake of Fire in Paradise Lost than to the Uncle Sam–sanctioned Fires of Kuwait, the fucking IMAX picture that screened to patriotic cheers at the Air and Space Museum.

A mystic visionary with a cult following, Herzog has also been denounced as a freak-show hustler and a homicidal madman.

I am at the luncheon as a devoted fan, a Herzog-worshiper ever since a late-’70s viewing of Aguirre at a repertory theater in Richmond. One of my most prized possessions is a framed black-and-white photo, a gift from a fellow Herzog fanatic. It depicts Herzog lunching on a boot. (As a challenge, Herzog had told Errol Morris that he’d eat his shoe if the aspiring director completed his movie about a pet cemetery. After Morris made the now-classic Gates of Heaven, Herzog fulfilled his promise in a public event documented in Les Blank’s film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which shows the German filmmaker downing mouthfuls of stewed leather between swigs of Heineken.)

Now I’m getting to see him eat salmon, cucumbers, dill sauce, and curried chicken, among other chilled delicacies. At first sight, though, I’m disappointed in Herzog the man: Recently shorn of his famous mustache, he seems more like a rumpled anthropology professor than a globe-trotting demiurge of trance cinema. Genial and even charming, he seems too much at ease in this contrived setting.

Even worse, after his promising buffetside performance, the director lapses into polite conversation with the other guests, whom I curse as casual fans stealing my time with the great Herzog. Most are Washington culture mavens—sportcoats and sneakers—holding cushy jobs at the Library of Congress, the American Film Institute, and other ivory towers. How many of them once drove to D.C. from Charlottesville with only a jarful of goddamn pennies—just enough cash for gas and a premiere of a Herzog film?

I scuttle to a corner where Herzog entertains an elderly couple (suit-and-tie and dinner dress); stuffing my face with curried chicken and gulping white wine, I eavesdrop on their hushed conversation: It turns out the old guy is a bigwig with the Washington Opera, and they are nailing down the details about Herzog directing an upcoming production. I can’t fault Herzog for cutting some deals: The film business has always been an expensive, messy racket.

Next, Herzog starts chatting up a couple of National Geographic lackeys about a project on the conquest of Mexico—told from the point of view of the vanquished Aztecs.

But then things get ugly: They start talking shop, bitching about the hazards of film production. Herzog coyly mentions his bleak 1971 film, Even Dwarves Started Small, about sadistic, goggle-faced midgets who stage a revolt at a reformatory—a relentlessly disturbing sort of Lord of the (Pint-size) Flies. “I actually did a film with an all-midget cast,” he chortles like a barroom braggart. Then he gets to the really funny stuff: During the filming, one of the midgets (who’d been accidentally doused with gasoline) caught on fire. “I threw myself onto the midget to extinguish the flames,” gasps Herzog, now convulsed by laughter. His listeners are endlessly amused by these antics.

By now I’m seething inside—not only because I’m left out of the conversation—but because of the sad spectacle of my fallen idol. I’m furious that Herzog would take this tired anecdote—one he’s told in countless interviews—and reduce it to a cocktail gag for cheap laughs. I can’t help but think of the damning portrait of Herzog in the late Kinski’s Célinesque (and mostly insane) autobiography: “I absolutely despise this murderer Herzog….His so-called talent is nothing more than torturing helpless creatures and, if necessary, putting them to death….His talk is cumbersome, fussy, pedantic, choppy. The words fall from his mouth like rubble. It goes on and on, flushing out his brain snot.”

Listening to Herzog ramble on, I remember Kinski’s outrageous threats: “Big red ants should piss in his eyes, eat his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts!” Harsh, yes, but in some reptilian part of my brain, perfectly understandable. Eying the dessert knife, I flee to the hallway leading to the back sun room.

Near a stainless-steel art installation, which I mistake for an oversize ashtray, I spot Sixt and ask her if it’s OK to smoke. Flashing a relieved smile, she says she’s been waiting for someone to light up all afternoon. Immediately a group of us is puffing away; then I see Herzog and his hangers-on headed our way. Parting the cloud of smoke, Herzog approaches and asks me—waving in an exquisitely deferential gesture—if he can bum one: “Every so often, I enjoy a cigarette,” he intones shyly. He lights one from my burning Camel, exhales with profound pleasure, and heads off to hold court in the sun room.

Creeping to the outer circle, I watch quietly as Herzog continues to regale his audience from a couch by the garden window. Then Sylvia Blume, the liaison from the Goethe-Institut, comes to my rescue. She asks what I want (“20 minutes alone with Herzog—that’s all I need”) and proceeds to whisper my request to the director.

Incredibly, just minutes later, Herzog summons me to the couch, where I take a nearby seat.

The next half-hour is a Herzog fanatic’s dream, and my anger evaporates. Spurred by a few simple questions, he holds forth in a magnificent near-monologue on a myriad of topics: Italian opera audiences (“Unbelievable—ranting and shouting like in an ancient gladiator arena”); his chicken obsession (“I’m scared of the flat stupidity of chickens”); TV preacher Gene Scott (“There’s something rabid about this performer—such a mad fantasist and illusionist. I’m very fond of him….I would never make a film on someone I didn’t like—including Aguirre….”); the macabre stories of 19th-century author Henrich von Kleist (“There are some literary texts you should never touch for a movie”); contemporary cinema (“The best films in the world today are being made in Iran and China”); and protesters against Lessons of Darkness (“There’s not one shot in the film where you can recognize our planet—it’s a world beyond recognition. They said I was aestheticizing the horrors of war because [the film] never mentions Saddam Hussein or Kuwait. I said, ‘For one year every single night on CNN you know what has happened and who are the bad guys.’ This is much more significant….”).

I ask Herzog about his notorious showdown with Kinski during the filming of Aguirre: “I was never armed—I never directed him at gunpoint at or anything like this. To tell you what happened: It was about 10 days before shooting was finished and he, for ridiculous reasons, packed his things and went to his speedboat….I spoke to him in a meek, low, almost whispering voice. I said, ‘Klaus, you’re not going to leave—this film is more important than our private feelings….If you don’t listen to what I tell you about the duties both of us have, there’s a gun that I have, and it has nine bullets. If you take the boat, you will have eight bullets in your head before you reach the bend of the river, and the ninth bullet is for me, because I don’t want to survive a disaster like this.’ He was shitting his pants. He screamed for help. He knew I was not joking—of course I would have shot him—and for the next 10 days he was docile and well-behaved.”

Herzog claims to have no bitterness about Kinski’s ravings against him in the actor’s autobiography: “Sometimes he hated me or I hated him, but the real thing was we loved each other very deeply, and we respected each other on a professional level like hardly anyone has ever done.”

When I ask about his next feature-film project, Herzog gets a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

“I’m going to make a movie about a murder case in San Diego, a fascinating murder….But at the moment, I’m much more into two-headed snakes. Tomorrow, I’m going to Hampton, Va., to see a turtle they have there. There’s a person there studying the strange effects of schizophrenia in reptiles.”

Then someone stoops down, parting the hushed crowd that has gathered around us. “Werner, you’ve got a phone call.” The

storyteller’s spell is broken. CP