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Werner Herzog has always been outside the mainstream, at least until the mainstream came to him. Since the late ’60s, Herzog has made films that explore the boundaries of narrative and madness: In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, he considered what might happen if a boy was exposed to the world after living his entire life inside a cell. In Fitzcarraldo, Herzog famously had a massive crew haul a steamship through the Peruvian jungle. Recently, Herzog has worked with big-name actors like Christian Bale and Nicolas Cage, and yet Herzog did not become a household name until documentaries like Grizzly Man became more widely seen. Part of the charm is Herzog himself: he speaks solemnly, with his deep German accent casting a bizarre spell over his audience.
Herzog’s latest documentary is Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. He explores how the internet’s role in our society, and how it can be source for good or evil. The film does not have a precise narrative—Herzog is too curious for that—and yet the film asks questions so that we might look at our smartphones more critically, or not at all. Along with a few other critics, I had a chance to interview Herzog about his career, his methods, and his affection for adorable cat videos.
Note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Also, it reads better if you imagine in it with Herzog’s voice.
Washington City Paper: You have made fiction films and documentaries. What do you think about the differences between them—are they just different end-points of the same medium?
Werner Herzog: They are all just movies for me, but of course the line is not the clear. There’s the issue of casting, for example. You see it in Lo and Behold: it’s well-cast [in terms of who I film]. I stylize my documentaries, even becoming inventive, for the sake of a deeper, illuminating truth. I call it “ecstatic truth.” Most documentaries nowadays are an extension of journalism, but I think documentary filmmaking should be divorced from journalism. Films should not be so fact-based; they do not always illuminate. The Manhattan phone directory is factually-correct, so if facts were illuminating, then [the directory] would be the book of books.
Right now, for example, I’m finishing a documentary on volcanoes. I’ve seen other strange, unusual places. I’ve filmed in North Korea, among all places, where everything is different from [what we see]. I’ve filmed in Ethiopia, in Indonesia, and the Pacific’s Vanuatu Archipelago. I just follow my fascinations, and am still trying to be a good soldier of cinema.
WCP: Are you concerned about our ever-increasing reliance on the internet and electronic devices?
WH: Personally, I do not use cell phones. This is not because I’m nostalgic; I do not use them for cultural reasons. I do not want to be available all the time. I do not want to examine the world through applications on my cell phone. I do not want a hacker—whether a private person or a government agency—to know where I am, and what time I’m calling whom. No one can track me down unless they sniff around this hotel, find room 411, and see that I am sitting here with you.
WCP: Do you think the internet interferes with our capacity for joy?
WH: Not necessarily. I think we can derive a lot of joy through the internet and our phones, but ultimately we have to create a filter. We don’t have a clear idea of how a filter should limit our time on our phones, and what we could do with our time away from it. I use internet via my laptop, for example, but in a limited way. I use it for emails. Sometimes, when it comes to family, I Skype with my relatives who are on another continent. Sometimes I use it for Google Maps, but that’s basically it.
We are losing our capacity of conceptual, deeper thinking because we delegate the examination our world to our applications. I’ll give you a story: One of my editors has a girlfriend who visited him—literally—every day, by car, in Los Angeles. She’s only a mile and a half away; the trip only requires three turns. She was always on her GPS, and the voice would tell her when to turn left or right. Her GPS system was down one day, and she couldn’t find him! She had no conception of a simple pattern, even though she did it forty times in thirty days.
WCP: It is an election year, and the one in the United States is getting very ugly…
WH: It is getting ugly everywhere, let’s face it. America is not an exception.
WCP: Either way, we are experiencing a resurgence of authoritarian populism. As an artist, how do you break through and get people to see what is happening around them?
WH: A filmmaker cannot really answer, and I cannot give you any redemption. If you are reading a lot—more than just a few tweets—you are better prepared to see what is happening around you. In addition to reading, voting is a real power, and should not be underestimated. I do not worry too much about politics, because pure populism does not have much of a chance for survival.
WCP: How do you arrive at the subjects for your documentaries?
WH: Films stumble into me, and they arrive uninvited, like burglars in the night. I will finish one film in a few weeks, and another a few weeks after that. While we’re sitting here, I feel like I have five or six other films that are coming right at me. I’m not planning a career. Instead, I’m overwhelmed. There are some films I can see so clearly that it’s as if I’m watching it in a theater. This is why I can write a screenplay so fast. I never spend more than a week writing a screenplay. This is also why I do not need to shoot that much. When I filmed Into the Abyss, a documentary about death row inmates, I only shot eight hours of footage for a two hour film. That means I can edit fast: today’s editing tools make it so I can edit almost as fast as I am thinking.
I see young filmmakers who come at me exuberantly, saying something like, “I shot 650 hours of footage, and have been editing for a year and half!” This makes my heart sink, because the market itself does not allow this kind of time and energy.
WCP: How much did you shoot for Lo and Behold?
WH: The shoot was eleven or twelve days. There was more footage because I used two cameras for each person, and our conversations would last about an hour. There was about thirty hours of footage, which is quite a lot for me.
WCP: Many years ago you said we lived in a world without any adequate images. Now we’re inundated with images. Anyone can make a movie with their smartphone. How do you feel about that?
WH: When you look at four thousand million people who use their phones—making videos and taking selfies—you realize high caliber art does not come from them. It encourages me as a filmmaker; I search for the image that is not expressed on a cell phone. There are surprises, however, that can come from cell phones. Somebody could discover new terrain, for example, although that is rare. I welcome what I see sometimes on YouTube. They have wonderful little things nobody could expect. We know cats can be very crazy, and those videos can be delightful. My films are illuminating in a different way. In Lo and Behold and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, there are moments where can see what makes us human beings with newly discovered depth.
WCP: You mention delightful cat videos, so you must be aware thatyour internet persona is delightful in its own right. How has that changed your filmmaking and how you interact with others?
WH: I do my work and that’s that, but yes, I’ve also entered into the consciousness of wider pop culture. I played a villain in Jack Reacher, and I had a guest role in The Simpsons. I didn’t even know The Simpsons when I was asked to do the show. I wrote back, “Do they talk? Do they speak?” I had seen them only in newspapers as a comic strip. They said, “Are you pulling our legs? The Simpsons has been on television for 24 years!” I asked them to send me some samples on DVD so I could understand how cartoonish they wanted my voice to be. They said, “Your voice doesn’t have to be cartoonish. Just keep your accent.” I also played a cameo in Parks and Recreation, and it’s very, very funny. They tap into my sense of humor, which is in all my films.
In Jack Reacher, however, I was paid handsomely for being frightening. I knew I could do that, but in my private life I’m absolutely not that kind of guy. My wife would testify and swear to you and God that I’m a fluffy husband.
WCP: Have you ever considered making a film with talking animals?
WH: That’s a very interesting question. I think a new style has evolved beautifully in animated films like Penguins of Madagascar. It connects to children, it connects to families. That’s the appeal, yes? If I could make a real good film for children, that would be wonderful. I would probably use the modern form of cartoons, but I think I’d have to be tapped into that world. I’m better suited to write a book for children. Whoever manages to captivate children is not the king of the world, but the crown prince of the world.