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Werner Herzog: Signs of Life

The filmmaker and seer speaks the language of of dreams, ravens, dwarfs, roosters, prophets . . .

Werner Herzog

The film-maker Werner Herzog giving a press conference, Stockholm, Sweden, January 27th,1977

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the 18th-century Hasidic master, once told the following story: A king one day summoned his counselor. “I have read in the stars,” he said, “that all who eat of the next harvest will be driven mad. What shall we do?” To which the counselor advised that he and the king should eat the previous year’s dwindling reserves and let the populace eat the tainted food. “I don’t wish to remain lucid in the midst of a people gone mad,” replied the king, “so we shall all enter madness together. When the world is in a state of delirium it is senseless to watch from the outside: the mad will think that we, too, are mad.” Yet the king also desired to keep alive the memory of his decision and of his former state. Putting his arm around his friend’s shoulder, he said: “You and I shall therefore mark each other’s forehead with a seal, and every time we look at one another, we shall know that we are mad.”

“Make my tales into prayers,” was one of Rabbi Nachman’s last wishes. And perhaps no contemporary filmmaker has so devotedly and rapturously made these kinds of tales into movies than the 34-year-old German director Werner Herzog, whose cinematic depiction of the autistic, the deaf, the dumb, the blind, ski jumpers, dwarfs and midgets, and inspired and deranged prophets remind us of the deeply longed for and remembered state of cosmic sanity and unity betokened and embodied by those who, living on the brink of experience, reveal to us the seals of our own madness.

Throughout Europe, Herzog’s films are considered to be visionary masterpieces (Aguirre, The Wrath of God played in Paris for 18 months). But in the United States his movies — in spite of the support of a director like Francis Ford Coppola, an actor like Jack Nicholson, film critics like Amos Vogel, Manny Farber and Jack Kroll, and admirers like the New York Film Festival’s Richard Roud and Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley — either show up infrequently or else open and close almost as quickly as it takes moviegoers to wait in line for the latest addled Hollywood flummery. (San Francisco is the one city in this country where it appears that Kaspar Hauser has developed a considerable theatrical following.)

Herzog, of course, is not the only young German filmmaker whose works remain relatively unknown in this country. And it is interesting to point out that after a creative void in German cinema for 30 years, the most vital and innovative areas of contemporary moviemaking are currently being explored and developed by a remarkable group of directors including Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondroff, Werner Schroeter, Jean-Marie Straub, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder who, along with Herzog, is one of the most fascinating filmmakers in the world today. But just as the techniques, styles and concerns of older German masters such as Pabst, Murnau and Lang differed from each other, so too those of the practitioners of the new German cinema.

Unlike the other important members of this multifaceted group, Werner Herzog shares less of an affinity with the political aesthetics of Bertolt Brecht and the German New Left than with the mystical tradition of Master Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, as well as of the Märchen, or supernatural fairy tale, tradition of the German Romantic poet Novalis. Like Herzog, Novalis was especially interested in the idea of the artist as magical synthesizer whose “eye stirs with the desire to become a true eye, a creative instrument,” and whose ultimate aim—like the Gnostic-influenced Boehme—is that of perceiving and reaching out for our true home. As Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser says: “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a terrible fall.”

Signs of life, Herzog’s first feature made when he was 24, is about a wounded German officer stationed on Crete during World War II who goes mad in a valley of windmills; Fata Morgana, the director’s most abstract film, was shot almost entirely in the Sahara Desert and is divided into three sections (“The Creation,” “Paradise,” “The Golden Age”), presenting a few isolated human beings surrounded by sand and sky and the mirages created by their union; Even Dwarfs Started Small features a cast of both midgets and dwarfs (Herzog uses the word “dwarf” to include both midgets and dwarfs) in an isolated Borstal-type prison at Lanzarote, one of the volcanic Canary Islands, who riot and run amok as if out of a Wilhelm Busch cartoon book: starting cockfights, burning a palm tree, pouring gasoline in flowerpots and setting them aflame (“When we’re well behaved, nobody cares; but when we’re trouble, nobody forgets”); Land of Silence and Darkness is a magnificent documentary about the deaf, dumb and blind, smelling and feeling flowers and trees, “hearing” poems through the hand signals of others, feeling the vibrations of radios through their chests, describing the imagined “real” world as if it were paradise; Aguirre, The Wrath of God, filmed mostly in the Peruvian Amazon, opens with indescribably beautiful shots of insurrectionary conquistadors and Indian slaves coming down a mist-enshrouded mountain, follows the adventures of the deranged Aguirre’s small band of followers floating down the river in search of the lost city of Eldorado and ends with what seems to be hundreds of chattering monkeys dancing wildly over dead bodies and the remains of the drunken raft; The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner is a documentary about Walter Steiner, whom Herzog considers the world’s greatest ski jumper (“ski flyer” is what the director calls him), whose glorious trajectories, seen in a succession of slow-motion zooms, reveal the impassioned relationship between camera and flyer; Kaspar Hauser (the original title is Every Man for Himself and God Against All), Herzog’s best-known film in America, is the director’s romantic and meditative adaptation and interpretation of the famous story of the young man who, brought up chained in a dungeon without ever seeing a human being, was discovered in 1828 standing in the Nuremberg town square holding an anonymous note. Knowing only one sentence (“I want to be a gallant rider like my father before me”), Kaspar Hauser is taught to speak, is exhibited as an example of “natural” man and is then mysteriously murdered.

“Mother, I am far away from everything,” are Kaspar’s first, halting words when a woman places her baby in his awkward arms. Like almost all of Herzog’s characters, Kaspar Hauser is only the most recent of the director’s extraterritorial creatures. Far away from their origins, their seeming inarticulateness is in fact the mark which reveals their childlike nature and their sense of homelessness. All of Herzog’s characters are spiritual infants. Significantly, the derivation of the word “infancy” comes from the idea of the “inability to speak,” and the obsession with language itself is at the heart of Herzog’s work, for it is here that one discovers the line where communication, being, imagination and perception touch, define and color each other.

In June of this year, Herzog flew to the United States in order to film a 45-minute television documentary about the world championship of livestock auctioneers in New Holland, Pennsylvania. “Theirs is like a new language, it’s like the last poetry, the last incantations,” the director told me a few days after the auction. “To me it’s somehow the ultimate of human communication, showing us how far our capitalist system has taken us. It’s very frightening and very beautiful at the same time. One of the auctioneers told me that as a child he would drive in a car and at each telephone pole he’d sell livestock to the poles as they passed by very quickly. Another one trained by reciting tongue twisters: ‘If it takes a hen and a half a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, how long does it take a broken wooden legged cockroach to kick a hole in a dill pickle?”‘

In Signs of Life, a young Greek boy, a little bird in his hand, suddenly says to the hero: “Now that I can talk, what shall I say?” And in Kaspar Hauser, the delineation of the boy’s education simply acknowledges the ineradicable power of preoperational infant thinking and speaking. As an apple rolls down a path, Kaspar says: “The apples are tired, they would like to sleep.” When he has a dream, he tells us: “It dreamed to me.” When he listens to the piano, he says: “The music feels strong in the heart.” And, finally: “Nothing lives in me except my life.”

“Kaspar was between 14 and 17 when he was discovered,” Herzog explains. “Bruno S., who plays him in my film, is 43. I don’t care at all.” Herzog chose Bruno for the part after seeing a documentary made about his life. His prostitute mother had deposited him in an institution for the retarded when he was three years old. Although not retarded, Bruno lived in the hospital until the age of nine, by which time he was psychically maimed for life. Herzog found him living like a bum in a shack, occasionally playing an accordion in backyards. His performance as Kaspar Hauser comes close in intensity to Falconetti’s portrayal of St. Joan in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. To perform the scene in which he learns to walk, Bruno knelt for three hours with a stick behind his knees until his legs were too numb to stand. Exhausted after filming each shot, he fell immediately asleep.

Herzog’s concern with the extremities of experience is meant to bring to light what Master Eckhart called the scintilla animae — the spark of the soul. The director wants to reveal this light in and by means of his denounced and renounced characters, and at the same time to bring us to an understanding of the birth of the word in the soul that is the light itself. By means of an uncanny admixture of montage, mise-en-scène, music, silence and language (with its hesitations, gaps and distortions), Werner Herzog has fashioned a spiritual and aesthetic program similar to the great magus Giordano Bruno: that of opening the “black diamond doors” within the psyche and of returning the intellect to unity through the organization of significant images.

Herzog made his first short films when he was 19 years old. “I never had any choice about becoming a director,” he says. “It was always clear, ever since I was 14 years old. I converted to Catholicism at 14 — my father was a militant atheist, and it was an enormous battle against my father. It was at that time that, too, I wanted to go to Albania, which was completely closed off to the rest of the world. So I walked along the Albanian-Yugoslavian border. I can’t tell you why I wanted to do this, but Albania was the mysterious country in Europe . . . . I wrote scripts at school and submitted them, but there was a long chain of humiliations and failures, so I decided to work at a steel factory at night to make money to produce my first short films.”

His sense of resolution and determination has become legendary. At the end of 1974, Herzog walked 600 miles from Munich to Paris — it took him three weeks — as a tribute to the great German film historian Lotte Eisner, to whom he dedicated Kaspar Hauser. “She was in a hospital in Paris, and I was afraid she was going to die,” Herzog explains. “And somehow, out of protest, I started to walk, thinking that when I arrived in Paris she would be out of the hospital. And she was. It was just some crazy thought in the back of my mind.

“I’m a friend of hers. But she’s important not only to me personally but to the whole of German filmmaking. You know, she was chased out of Germany in 1934 during the years of barbarism, and she remained the historical and cultural link to the great and legitimate German cinema of the Twenties and Thirties. Filmmakers like myself started from zero — we didn’t have the cultural continuity of France or the United States. And Lotte Eisner witnesses for us that we are legitimate again. She is the only person alive who knows film history in person from Lumiès and Méliès to Eisenstein and Pudovkin and the early Chaplin. She’s like the last surviving mammoth. And when she dies, something unique will be gone forever. It will be the tragic hour of my life.”

Herzog’s films share certain visual and thematic concerns with the work of Luis Bunuel, Tod Browning, Georges Franju, Ruy Guerra, but, most especially, with the films of F.W. Murnau. “Nosferatu in particular,” the director agrees. “It’s the most incredible film ever made in Germany. Once I make a film on that level, I’ll be able to step back and be satisfied with my work. But I don’t feel any continuity of culture with Murnau—he could have been from Japan or anywhere else, it’s his way of seeing things, his narration, that I feel close to. I just see something at the horizon and try to articulate it.”

Of all the major directors, Werner Herzog is perhaps the first to use music in such a way that the visual integument of his films at moments seems almost to become transparent as the exorcistic, floating and numinous sounds of chorales, chants and motets lead us inward to the mysterious foundations of being. (Herzog’s choice of Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen songs to accompany and transfigure the shimmering desert horizons of Fata Morgana seems, on hindsight, to have been an aesthetic gaffe, occasioned, one might surmise, by the director’s overestimation of the mystical glamour of those songs and voices.)

The night before I went to interview Herzog, I made a little cassette tape of pieces by Landini (the blind 14th-century organist and composer) and Gesualdo (the mad 16th-century composer-prince), both of them musically and emotionally akin to Herzog’s own work and obsessions. The interview began with my playing this tape for him (this was, in a sense, the real interview), and it turned out that both composers were among Herzog’s favorites. (“Some people have written that I’m a figure out of the 19th century,” the director says in the following interview, “but the appropriate time for me would be the late Middle Ages.”)

As the tape neared the end, on came a minute-and-a-half lullaby sung by a little Balinese girl (I’d forgotten I’d recorded it), whose tiny, disembodied voice ravished us completely. Suddenly, Herzog said: “I hear a rooster in the background!” And there it was, crowing somewhere in the Balinese countryside.

“It’s strange,” I said to him, ‘I’ve noticed that there are lots of chickens and roosters in your films, and in fact I was planning on telling you a Rabbi Nachman story about a prince who became a rooster.”

“Please, I must hear it,” Herzog insisted.

“In a distant land, a prince lost his mind and imagined himself a rooster. He took refuge under the dining room table, stripped naked and refused to eat anything but grain. The king called in magicians and doctors to cure his son, but to no avail. One day an unknown sage arrived, took off his clothes and joined the prince under the table, saying that he, too, was a rooster. Eventually, the sage convinced the prince to get dressed and finally to sit down to eat with the others. ‘Don’t ever think,’ the sage told the prince, ‘that by eating like man, with man, at his table, a rooster ceases to be what he is. You mustn’t ever believe that it is enough for a rooster to behave like a man to become human; you can do anything with man, in his world and even for him, and yet remain the rooster that you are.”‘

Werner Herzog made me promise to include this story here, along with our conversation that began in September 1975 and concluded in June 1976.

In your films you always show chickens and roosters as malevolent, scavengerlike creatures. You seem to be obsessed with them.
I’ve been searching all over the United States for the most gigantic rooster I could find, and recently I heard about a guy in Petaluma, California, who had raised a rooster named Weirdo. Weirdo weighed 30 pounds, Weirdo had died, but his offspring were alive and as big as he. So I went out to see Ralph, a 31-pound rooster, and then found a horse that stood only 22 inches high. I wanted to film them — the rooster chasing the horse with a midget rider on it (the horse and midget rider together were shorter than Ralph) — but the guy who owned the horse refused to allow it to be taken to a sequoia tree forest, about 150 miles away.

I am obsessed with chickens. Take a close and very long look into the eye of a chicken and you’ll see the most frightful kind of stupidity. Stupidity is always frightful. It’s the devil: stupidity is the devil. Look in the eye of a chicken and then you’ll know. It’s the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creature in this world.

Once I had a dream. I dreamt that one of my girlfriends got married — I had wanted to marry her myself — and I was standing in the rear aisle of the church, while she was being interrogated by the priest who held a big book and asked stereotyped questions like: “Do you reject all the powers of the demons?” and she replied: “Yes, I reject all of the powers of the demons,” after which he intoned: “Do you reject all the tricky devices of the devil?” and so on. And all of a sudden I walked up the aisle, closed the book and said: “There is no devil, there’s only stupidity.” They chased me out of the church, I fled with the bride, and at the corner of a street I took a left turn and went up the hill, and she took the right turn, and after 20 steps I realized that she was gone. So I ran back down this hill and just at the corner a mule came galloping by and hit me so hard that I woke up. . . That’s the dream.

In your films, I always get a sense of secret correspondences between animals and states of mind. The kneeling camel, for example, is another ubiquitous creature in your movies — in Kaspar Houser and, most powerfully, as the presiding presence over the final scenes of madness in Even Dwarfs Started Small.
We tried out about 60 camels until we found one that was obedient enough to freeze in a position half-between sitting and standing up. When a camel sits down it falls to its front knees and then sits down completely. And we had one camel whose owner would say, “Sit down,” and before it sat down he’d then say, “Get up,” “Sit down,” “Get up” — and finally the camel was so confused that it froze halfway in this awkward position. The smallest dwarf begins his horrible laughing fit and the director of the institution goes berserk and points with his finger at a branch, demanding the branch to lower its arm while he himself raises his arm and says: “I will hold my arm out longer than you and I will stand longer than you.” It seems as if this will go on for weeks and weeks, and that when you return three weeks later they will still be there, the camel kneeling. It’s so pathetic, it really moves me. And I only know the camel has to be there. Without the camel the film is nothing.

Animals are so important in my films. But I have no abstract concept that a particular kind of animal signifies this or that, just a clear knowledge that they have an enormous weight in the movies.

Giordano Bruno wrote: “The forms of deformed animals are beautiful in heaven.” A number of persons have wondered why you seem fascinated with “deformed” people in your movies.
That’s a great statement, but there are no deformed people in my films. The dwarfs, for example, are well proportioned. What is deformed are the very normal, average things: consumer goods, magazines, a chair, a doorknob — and the religious behavior, table manners, educational system . . . these are the monstrosities, not the dwarfs.

But there’s another aspect to the way you present animals in your films. Sometimes — as with the turtle in Fata Morgana, the swan in Kaspar Hauser — they appear as creatures whose presence conveys a sense of liberation suggested in one of the most famous passages from Whitman’s Song of Myself:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things . . .
Yes, Whitman can say it in words, I can’t. I can show it only. But it comes very close to what my animals are about . . . But not the chickens: they’re vicious, neurotic, the Real Danger.

Chickens are birds, but birds that can’t fly. Perhaps that’s one reason you dislike them so much.
Yes, maybe it has some significance, because I myself can’t fly. I used to love ski jumping, but I had to give it up. I was so deeply shocked by an accident that happened to my best friend who almost died.

I have to tell you the story that’s in my film The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner. Steiner — who’s a woodcarver and, in my opinion, the world’s greatest ski jumper — had a photo album which I happened to leaf through, and there were pictures in it of when he was a kid, and one strange shot of a raven. So I asked him about the raven, I kept bothering him about it, and finally he told me the story.

When he was 12, his only friend was a raven which he raised and fed. And both the raven and Steiner were embarrassed by their friendship, so the raven would wait for him far away from the schoolhouse, and when all the other kids were gone it flew onto his shoulder and, together, they’d walk through the forest. Finally the raven lost its feathers and the other ravens started to pick on him and hack him. The raven wanted to flee, it fell down from the tree because it couldn’t fly anymore, and Walter Steiner shot his own raven because he couldn’t stand the cruelty any longer.

At this point in the film there’s a cut, and you see Steiner flying in slow motion for more than a minute. On skis he flies. An incredible man, he flies in complete ecstasy, as if into a ravine, as if he were going into the darkest abyss that is imaginable. He flies into it, and he flies and flies and then lands, he is all alone on that slope, and you see him in a blurred, very strange way. Then a text appears, a written text based on words by Robert Walser, over the image. And it says: “I should be all alone in this world, I, Steiner, and no other living being. No sun, no culture, I naked on a high rock, no storm, no snow, no streets, no banks, no money, no time and no breath. Then I wouldn’t be afraid anymore.”

In Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities,’ one of the characters says: “We may imagine ourselves in any situation we like, but we always think of ourselves as seeing. I believe that the reason man dreams is because he should not stop seeing. Some day perhaps the inner light will shine forth from us, and then we shall need no other light.” I quote this because it seems to me that the mystery of your films lies in the way you reveal this special inner light emanating from the autistic, the deaf, the dumb and the blind.
Yes, I always try to go to the innermost light that is burning inside of us. In Kaspar Hauser, Kaspar is writing his name with weeds in the grass, and his face reveals this light. Or when Kaspar says: “I dreamt of the Caucasus” — you see it then, too.

I hardly ever dream in my life, I have a dream maybe once in a year. But when I walk, for example, I live whole novels. Or when I drive for a long time in the car I see whole films, and I get afraid. And one time I almost had an accident in my car because there were hundreds of butterflies in the car and they wouldn’t get out. I knew they weren’t real so I stopped the car and let them out. I opened the door, but still they wouldn’t go. I was on the Autobahn in the country, but it was as if I were on a big street in Vienna, with old-fashioned houses and hundreds of people leaning out, staring at me, and I was frightened, and I was driving and there were these butterflies around my head . . . and whole stories developed out of it.

There’s also an extraordinary dreamlike quality to your directing and editing. In the beginning of Even Dwarfs Started Small, for example, you show Hombre, the smallest midget, sitting between the windows as he’s being interrogated, and when he says: “My ears are ringing. Someone is thinking of me,” the camera . . .
Yes, that’s the only time the camera moves, the camera starts to move toward the window and looks out of the window because Hombre looks at the window and says: “Someone is thinking of me,” and then you see that barren place as the camera moves away in a half circle.

At that moment you hear on the soundtrack that otherworldly malaguena melody sung by a young Spanish girl, and then you see the landscape again, but this time from a distance and almost in a mist, as if the landscape were now being seen by a different and higher consciousness.
Yes, I direct animals and I also claim that you can even direct a landscape.

In Fata Morgana, the narrator says: “In paradise you cross the sand without seeing your shadow. There is landscape even without deeper meaning.”
It’s even stated twice . . . There is something visionary about these landscapes, the way they’re shown. Most of my films have their origins in locations and landscapes, and then they start to build up around those locations.

I’m looking for new images in film. I’m sick of the images in magazines, I’m sick of post cards, I’m sick of walking into a travel agency and seeing a Pan Am poster of the Grand Canyon: it’s a waste of worn-out images. And somehow I have the positive knowledge of new images, like a far-distant strip of land on the horizon; I see new images and try to articulate them. I’ve tried to do this in Fata Morgana and in the dream sequences in Kaspar Hauser. I’m trying to discover our innermost conditioning, it’s a very deep-down brooding knowledge.

We were listening before to some music of the 13th and 14th centuries: that’s my time. Every person can be identified with a certain type of landscape or season. A man like de Gaulle — his landscape is Lorraine, and to me he’s a November person. And perhaps a certain epoch of time would apply as well.

Some people have written that I’m a figure out of the 19th century, but they’re wrong. The appropriate time for me would be the late Middle Ages. I feel close to the music and painting of that time. It would also fit the concept of my work. I don’t feel like an artist, I feel like a craftsman. All the sculptors and painters of that period didn’t regard themselves as artists, but rather as craftsmen, and they did professional work as craftsman. That is exactly how I feel about my work as a filmmaker — as if I were anonymous, I couldn’t even care.

I knew, for instance, that Fata Morgana was very frail, that the film itself was like a cobweb and very sensitive. I said to my friends: I’ve made a film now, but it has to be untouched. There shouldn’t be any brutality. It shall be untouched, anonymous, I will keep it and show it only to my very best friend before I die. And this friend has to keep and before he dies must show it and hand it over to his best friend, and it should go on like that for a few generations . . . and only then might it be released. I kept the film for almost two years without showing it, and then I was somehow pushed into it, tricked into it. It makes sense that it’s being shown, but I did have that idea of never releasing it. And in fact I have a short film that I’ve not shown to anyone for 12 years — it’s called Game in the Sand. A rooster is the leading character in the film, by the way; it’s about four children and a rooster.

There’s one scene in Kaspar Hauser showing a carnival in which we see Kaspar hired out as a freak-show oddity; Hombre, who appeared in Even Dwarfs Started Small; and the young Mozart in a trance, peering into the deep holes of the earth, “his mind engrossed in his own twilight.” It’s interesting that this little scene by itself seems to contain in microcosm most of the thematic cells and motifs of all your films.
It was in fact the idea for an entire movie that I was thinking of making. Kaspar Hauser literally comes out of darkness, dwarfs come out when night is at its darkest, and many of my figures come from the very deep night. It is the dark night that’s in my films.

I couldn’t help feeling that Kaspar Hauser’s impassioned and craggily imperfect piano performance of the Mozart sonata suggested that the spirit of Mozart was somehow entrapped in the sonata-allegro from itself.
Exactly, I feel so much compassion when I hear how Bruno played the piece. That’s exactly right. People used to laugh at his performances because they’d say, “Oh, this is ridiculous and dilettantish,” and I’d say, “No, this is the great cultural event of the year, it’s not Bernstein or von Karajan: this agitation, this sheer agitation of the mind is culture. This is the true culture, that’s what culture is; and therefore he’s a great man, he is really great.” People don’t understand it, but they will.

There are two other wonderful scenes in Kaspar Hauser: the desert dream sequence, for one, in which Kaspar is told that the mountains are just his imagination . . .
The blindness of that old leader of the caravan . . . that’s his virtue because he cannot be misled. He tastes the sand as if it were food and leads the people out of the desert because he’s blind. This is his virtue . . .

And then the scene on the lake with the swan gliding . . .
And the boat. The boat drifts into it, but they don’t row, they stopped rowing just outside the frame, and it just drifts into the frame. . . . For five consecutive nights the crew went to the lake at 3 a.m., and we waited until four, and each time there was something wrong; we wanted it a little foggy and there was no fog. That swan rests calmly at one point, and all of a sudden it starts to move, and the music . . . by Albinoni . . . we organized the music to the movement of the swan. Just look at how the animal starts to swim away and how the music pulls with it.

The most beautiful and privileged moments in your films either occur in silence (“Can’t you hear that terrible screaming all around us that men call silence?” are the words that appear at the beginning of Kaspar Hauser) or are accompanied by a music that seems to represent a kind of audible silence.
Silence is very important in Aguirre, for example. We spent weeks recording birds’ voices, and I composed the soundtrack out of eight tapes, and there isn’t one single voice of a bird that isn’t properly placed as if in a big choir. All of a sudden there is silence. And when there’s silence, someone is going to die on the raft because it means that Indians must be hiding in the trees, and all the birds stop singing. Everybody’s so afraid that they start to scream and shout and to fire their rifles in order not to hear the silence.

I also remember the eerie, noisy silence when the soldier goes mad in Signs of Life, walking in that field filled with what looks like thousands of whirring windmills — I think that’s one of the most haunting moments I’ve ever experienced in films.
Yes, it starts with silence and then there’s a very strange sound. I took a recording of the applause of about 1500 people after a concert and distorted this applause electronically in such a way that it sounds like the clacking of wood. Have you ever placed your ear against a telephone pole when there was a lot of wind? As children we used to call it the “angels singing.” And that kind of sound goes over it. There were 10,000 windmills. People ask me what kind of trick I used, but it was nothing but a normal camera that looked across this field with 10,000 windmills. This is exactly what I was referring to before with regard to the new images I’m after: something that is even beyond what one can dream, something beyond our dreams.

I also remember one powerful scene in Even Dwarfs Started Small in which you see scavenger chickens, then a willowlike tree with leaves in mist, then goggle-helmeted dwarfs with their sticks, sitting like little boys pretending to be kings in the stone garden . . .
I really like that scene. You can’t describe it and there are no words to explain the strength of those images. I’m glad you’ve seen these things.

And then there’s that first image in Land of Silence and Darkness — a ski jumper flying through the air and the innocent, wavering voice of a deaf and blind woman saying: “When I’m touched I jump.”
I asked the woman to say this line — she’d never seen a ski jumper — and I said: “This is going to be important for the film, maybe you don’t understand but please say this text for me as if you’d seen the ski jumper.” I’m not a cinéma vérité person, I hate cinéma vérité, by the way. There is such a thing as the plain truth, but there are also different dimensions in truth — and in film there are more dimensions beyond the cinéma vérité truth. That’s where it starts to become exciting.

In your films, these new forms of truth often occur when language disintegrates. There’s that scene in Signs of Life when the soldiers meet this young autistic girl . . .
The two soldiers are on this reconnaissance, and they meet a shepherd who gives them water to drink. And there’s that little girl, and he says: “This girl, my daughter, can hardly speak at all because it’s so lonely up here. I’m out at night with the sheep and my wife is away during the day and we don’t talk, so, even though she is seven years old, she can hardly talk at all. Sometimes she picks up a few words down in the town when she sees her aunt.” And then all of a sudden, the father wants to demonstrate that his daughter is really all right, and he asks her: “Please, won’t you say the words of a song for those gentlemen.” And the girl starts to recite the text of a song, but all of a sudden she gets stuck, she loses her speech, and she starts to twist her skirt in despair, she’s so upset. It’s a poem I wrote myself about sheep, 98 sheep in Lasithi Mountain (it’s a mountain range in Crete), and one of them got lost. The text goes: “Hurry ye shepherds, hurry. For over the range, there are circling the vultures.” And she doesn’t remember the word “vultures,” so she hesitates on that word.

It’s important that she loses her speech only minutes before the soldier goes insane. The same thing almost occurred to me when I climbed up that mountain and looked down into that valley with the 10,000 windmills. I sat down and it was at that very moment when I was sure I was insane. And I had a very hard time getting out of that place. . . . I claim that I’m not insane. I think the others are, or most of the others are. I think I make sense to some extent. But that was a moment when I felt I must be insane: it can’t be true, it can’t be real.

In all of my films, in moments of utmost despair, there’s silence and an exchange of signals — people exchange some kind of signals. You don’t see the soldier anymore as a private person, as a psychological figure. You see him from a distance of 400 yards away, like an ant, as little as that. And he gives signals or signs — the same kind of signs of violence and despair that he himself had received all the time. He wants to destroy the whole town with toy rockets. It’s humiliating for him. It’s such a humiliation that he only scorches a chair and he only manages to kill a donkey. And that’s all, and then he’s captured by his own people.

He lacks the divine madness of Kaspar Hauser, doesn’t he?
But they are close to each other, too, because both try to articulate themselves and their loneliness.

The overwhelming intensity of your films makes some people feel that you lack a sense of irony.
I don’t understand irony. I recently received a national film award, which gave me a lot of money for my next film. So two days after I had received a letter from the minister of the interior, the phone rang and I picked it up and a voice said: “This is the minister of the interior.” And I said, “Well, sir . . .” And that guy started to stutter: “I’m so sorry. We’ve made such a mistake that I personally had to call you up. We sent you a letter saying that you’ve received a big award, but it’s a mistake. And I had to tell you.” So I said: “Sir, how could this have happened? I mean, there are three signatures on this letter. It must have passed through three departments. It’s all right, I accept this, but how can this have happened? How can this occur?” Then, after ten minutes of talking, this guy started to scream with laughter. And then I found out it was a friend of mine who was just pulling a trick on me. It’s a habit to kid each other in the United States. But I’m just like a fool, I’m sitting around like a fool because I take it all literally. There are things in language that are common to many people, or to almost all, but they are lost on me. I have some defects of communication in the form of language.

I was very silent as a child, and violent. I was very choleric and really dangerous to other kids because I didn’t speak for days, and they kept singing around me and just pulling on me, and all of a sudden there was an outburst of rage and violence and despair.

I read that after you finished making Even Dwarfs Started Small, you jumped into a giant, seven-foot cactus.
There were always catastrophes. During the shooting of that film, I was so shocked by the fact that one of the dwarfs caught fire — you know, they take gasoline to water the flowers and they set a flowerpot aflame, and all of a sudden one of those guys was just burning like a tree. And all of the rest of the crew looked at him as if this guy were a Christmas tree, with open eyes and giving them a beautiful stare. So I was the first one to react. I jumped over that little guy, buried him under me, and extinguished the flames — his face was only a little scorched. And then two days later the same guy was hit by the car that was circling around him. The guy fell and the empty car went right over him. That man just stood up and walked away, but when that occurred I couldn’t continue and had to stop shooting.

There was a big field of cactuses, each with long spines as long as my finger. And I said to them: “If all of you survive this shooting, if all of you get out of it unhurt, I will do the big cactus leap, and you can have the camera.” And so, the last day of shooting, when it was all over, they took the super-8-millimeter camera. I put on big goggles to protect my eyes, and I really took a big jump. Today there are still some spines in my knee sinews from the jump. The bad thing wasn’t the leap itself but the getting out of it . . . that’s painful. I suffered for half a year. I didn’t imagine beforehand how painful it would be.

There were many catastrophes during the shooting of Fata Morgana, too. In the Cameroons, we wanted to cross the country to get to an eastern Congolese province for some locations there. Unfortunately there was an aborted coup d’état a few weeks before we arrived. Some mercenaries had been involved in the whole thing, one of them was condemned to death in absentia, and unfortunately, the cameraman had almost an identical name as one of the mercenaries. So we were captured at night and dragged into prison, I had malaria and a very bad parasitic disease. We were hardly able to hold the camera still because we were shaking with fever and we were locked into a room that was maybe 15′ x 18′, but there were more than 70 people cramped together in that room. There was no light, no water, and people were tortured to death, two of them died. And we were very badly mistreated there. It went on like that, too. There was a warrant out for us all over the country. And either on purpose or out of slovenliness the officials forgot to destroy that warrant. So every time we passed through a town, we were arrested.

Just before the shooting of Signs of Life, the military coup d’état occurred in Greece, and everything was forbidden to us. I was forbidden to have fireworks in my film. I told the army major: “It’s so essential, it’s the main motif in the film. This film is more important than your private life and my private life. And you’re just scared because you might do something wrong when you allow this. I will do it, even though it’s forbidden.” And he said: “Then we’ll arrest you.” And I said to him: “Go on and arrest me. But I won’t be without a firearm tomorrow. Keep in mind that the very first man who touches me, who lays a hand on me to arrest me, will drop down dead with me.” And I was not unarmed next morning. There were 50 policemen and soldiers who watched us, and 3000 people of the town who wanted to see the fireworks; they all watched us and nobody dared to touch me.

It seems to me that Aguirre is about a man who takes his imagination to be reality and that Kaspar Hauser is about a person who takes reality to be his imagination.
That’s a good formula. And my new film is in between Aguirre and Kaspar Hauser — both stylistically, in terms of the images and action, and thematically, in terms of the idea of the striving for something . . . not for Eldorado this time but for a special ruby glass.

The film is called Heart of Glass and it’s about a legendary prophet in Bavarian folklore — a shepherd with prophetic gifts and visions. The story is mine and tells of a disaster at a glass factory. The prophet is called in because the secret required for the mixture of this very valuable glass has been lost. Everyone becomes halfway insane and the prophet foresees that the factory is going to burn down. At the end, the factory owner performs a ritual murder of a 15-year-old servant girl, thinking that virgin blood in the mixture will create rubies. He burns his own place down, as foreseen, but the prophet is blamed for it and is imprisoned. Here he has a vision of a place so remote from the inhabited world that the few people living there haven’t learned that the world is round. And the prophet’s has a vision of a man standing on the cliff and staring for years over the ocean. And years later a second person joins him, then another, until four men stand over the ocean which, for them, ends in an abyss. And after many years of hypnotic staring, they decide to take a rowboat and find the end of the world. . . . Most of the film was shot in a glass factory and in a forest in northern Bavaria. And the prophet’s vision was shot 15 miles off the west Irish coast on a little island where monks built a settlement 1400 years ago.

I’ve heard that you hypnotized the members of your cast for this film.
I have to say that I was interested in hypnosis mainly for the way it could be used as a means of stylization. We tested out about 450 people and we needed persons who could be hypnotized under very difficult circumstances — standing around with reflectors shining on them and with a lot of activity going on. And they had to be hypnotized so deeply that they could open their eyes without waking up. However, we rehearsed the basic movements and lines of the dialogue without hypnosis.

During the tryouts, I wanted to find out about the poetic quality of the cast, so I hypnotized them and said: “You are in a beautiful and exotic land which no person from our country has ever set foot on. Look in front of you — there is an enormous cliff, but on looking at it more closely you’ll find that it’s actually one solid piece of emerald.” And I continued: “In this country, a couple of hundred years ago, a holy monk lived here and he was a poet and he spent his entire life engraving just one inscription into this emerald cliff.” And I said: “Open your eyes, you can read this inscription.”

And one of the men there who tends to the horses in the police stable — he took a look, opened his eyes, and read: “Why can’t we drink the moon? Why is there no vessel to hold it?” And the guy next to him was a law student. He took a look and started to read: “Dear Mother, I am doing fine, I just don’t know where we’re going, but I think everything is all right. Hugs and kisses, Your Son.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Werner Herzog

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