Life Advice from filmmaker Werner HerzogBy: Ma. Cristina Alemán, editora en jefe (@mcristina)
The voice of Werner Herzog is so iconic that the internet is plagued with parodies of the German director – for instance, a video in which “Herzog” reads a book from the children’s series Where’s Wally?, or supposedly inspirational memes with phrases like “Human life is an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events. We seem to be next”.
Herzog, who was a special guest at the first ever FICM, is known for never making concessions to political correctness. In documentaries like Grizzly Man (2005) or The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) his reflections are solemn, honest and sometimes downright strange … including his likening of a group of (fake) albino crocodiles to the human condition, to mention just one.
It’s not necessary to imitate Herzog’s great wisdom – the website Brain Pickings recently published an article in which Maria Popova brings together a series of choice quotes from Paul Fronin’s book: Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed. We include below some of the director’s best:
“There is nothing wrong with hardships and obstacles, but everything wrong with not trying”.
“We can never know what truth really is. The best we can do is approximate… Truth can never be definitively captures or described, though the quest to find answers is what gives meaning to our existence”.
On the Creative Process
“The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the window like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others is the one coming at me with the most vehemence. I have, over the years, developed methods to deal with the invaders as quickly and efficiently as possible, though the burglars never stop coming. You invite a handful of friends for dinner, but the door bursts open and a hundred people are pushing in. You might manage to get rid of them, but from around the corner another fifty appear almost immediately… Finishing a film is like having a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s relief, not necessarily happiness. But you relish dealing with these “burglars.” I am glad to be rid of them after making a film or writing a book. The ideas are uninvited guests, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome.”
“I work best under pressure, knee-deep in the mud. It helps me concentrate. The truth is I have never been guided by the kind of strict discipline I see in some people, those who get up at five in the morning and jog for an hour. My priorities are elsewhere. I will rearrange my entire day to have a solid meal with friends”.
On Making Films
“The bad films have taught me most about filmmaking. Seek out the negative definition. Sit in front of a film and ask yourself, “Given the chance, is this how I would do it?” It’s a never-ending educational experience, a way of discovering in which direction you need to take your own work and ideas.”
“The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking – like great literature – must have experience of life as its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemmingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because – as remote as it might seem – at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.”
I find the notion of happiness rather strange… It has never been a goal of mine. I just don’t think in those terms… I try to give meaning to my existence through my work. That’s a simplified answer, but whether I’m happy or not really doesn’t count for much. I have always enjoyed my work. Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word: I love making films, and it means a lot to me that I can work in this profession. I am well aware of the many aspiring filmmakers out there with good ideas who never find a foothold. At the age of fourteen, once I realized filmmaking was an uninvited duty for me, I had no choice but to push on with my projects. Cinema has given me everything, but it has also taken everything from me.”
On documentary rigor (in an interview with Steve Colbert), Herzog had the following to say:
“I want the audience with me in wild fantasies, in something that illuminates them. You see, if we are only fact-based, the book of books in literature would be the Manhattan phone directory – four million entries, everything correct. But it dusts out of my ears and I do not know: “do they dream at night?”, “does Mr Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow every night?”. We do not know anything when we check all the correct entries in the phone directory. I am not this kind of a filmmaker.”
Herzog’s existential curiosity is not limited to mutant crocodiles or the hypothetical Mr. Jonathan Smith. His films ask more questions than they answer, and that’s probably the most important thing they can teach us. To end, we include an extract from Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), in which the filmmaker expresses his concerns about the mental health of a penguin: