Werner Herzog: Signs of 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.