Werner Herzog – A Guide To The Perplexed
‘Man is a god when he dreams and a beggar when he thinks.’ – So let us begin. I don’t wish to commence proceedings with ridiculous hyperbole or exaggerated whimsy but I’m sure we can all agree that Werner Herzog, the great German film director, poet and documentarian is a god who walks among us mere pathetic mortals. OK, OK, pushing flippancy aside and being absolutely serious having given this some significant consideration, now here is my central thesis – I assert that a century from now future media scholars and visual art historians will look back on the first dozen decades of cinema and elect Werner as the greatest practitioner of the form in its adolescent infancy. Has he made that one masterpiece that is regularly venerated as one of the greatest films of all time akin to Potemkin, Kane or Vertigo? Perhaps not but a half-dozen of his films are always honored in the top fifty. Has one single film of his individually exploded and expanded the form beyond its contemporary intellectual boundaries as Welles, Ozu, Kurosawa or Kubrick managed to achieve? Probably and possibly not. Yet has anyone equaled the incredible breadth, stupendous sweep and stultifying scale of his work over his half century career? No, and here as they say is the rub gentle reader.
Usurping his contemporaries Herzog has made films throughout the 20th and 21st centuries all over the world, veering from the jungles of South America to the fetid swamps of commercial Hollywood, even taking in a whistle-stop tour of a pregnant pacific Pompeii. His camera has surveyed the African veldt and the tropical plateaus of the Orient, proceeding from a shattered Middle East to the shivering wastes of Antarctica. Furthermore he has straddled fiction and non-fiction, documentaries, art installations, operas and biographies, moving effortlessly through genres and styles yet retaining his own distinct Teutonic purr. Finally the historical scale is breathtaking, situating his omnipotent observations among (off the top of my head) the Paleolithic to the medieval epoch, the bloody forging of the New World, the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century, taking two passes on the same story from a fiction and non-fiction position, before finally passing into space with a few cult SF oddities. Who the fuck else has managed that? More recently he has embarked on a side career as raconteur and verbal essayist through his numerous public speaking engagements, so I jumped at the chance to see the great Übermensch during his current book tour at an engagement at Westminster Central Hall, interviewed by the legendary journalist Paul Holdengraber at an event crowned as a Guide To The Perplexed. I have seen the light my friends, and it is good.
‘Only the shallow think they know themselves’ – It’s only been a few hours since the verbal spectacle was absorbed, and my primitive mind is still a little bewildered and busy digesting the proceedings, so I think the best way to give a flavor of the evening would be a stream of consciousness diatribe – bear with me. Introduced (perhaps a little pretentiously) as ‘cognitive theatre’ this was something of a greatest hits of Herzog anecdotes, observations, opinions and predictions, frequently hilarious and pulsing with insight, starting with his current fascination with the psychic possibilities of the Oculus rift technology – the man is 72 years old and this is his opening gambit. What are the implications of this breakthrough for the long-term hospitalized, the insane or the death row inmate, giving them a safe alternate reality to escape their fractured and imprisoned functions? He dislikes Brecht and modern art (citing the poisoned industrial 1% collector ethos) and being pigeon-holed as a Romantic in the classical sense, and bemoans the lack of genuine, non-formulated journalism in most non-fiction work that he inquisitively approaches from an organic perspective. His documentarian instincts are to approach his subjects without a precept of questions or ideological territory, finding the work through conversation and query. He spent six months living with a near destitute family in Philadelphia as part of his ‘walking the earth’ period of his early twenties, marveling at the generosity of strangers (he met a blue-collar family while hitchhiking who gave him shelter without question) and was fascinated at the matriarchs invented language that she shared with her cocker spaniel. Years later he queried a priest on the wonder of gods creation and made him weep when he asked him of his most memorable encounter with a squirrel. He considers Psychoanalysis as damaging to civilization as the Spanish Inquisition (no, I’m not making the Squirrel thing up), as man must not delve too deep into his darkest squalor, and his witnessing of The Rolling Stones second ever American gig was something to behold – buy me a pint and I’ll regale you with that gem.
‘We should not fear the bear, but we must respect the bear’ – As I suspected Herzog is fully aware of and cultivates his media image quite carefully, he explained how he primes and prepares his legendary voiceovers to his non-fiction hymns to the majestic immortal and ultimately mysterious, always gravitating to the lunatic dreamers and ostracized outsiders who infect his work. He and Holdengraber briefly shared their appreciation of Mike Tyson as an underappreciated champion beyond his sporting prowess, detailing his incredible rise from the most destructive upbringing imaginable to international icon – a violent man with a difficult history which should deserve some sort of Grecian-roman appreciation. He mourns the state of the planet from an environmental health check perspective yet is certain that any possible savior must be terrestrial and will not be found in the stars, as any mission to distant hospitable worlds will engender fifty generations of ancestral madness among some perverted ark, meaning when we arrive in Alpha Centauri the ambassadors of our species will be perverted with a mad incestual disease – now there’s a movie waiting to happen. Closer to home Herzog was raised without the influence of a father which I find fascinating given his self-propelled drive and achievements, born into the hunger of the shattered cradle of his defeated homeland (he was born in 1942) the shadow of the Third Reich hangs heavy over his artistic generations musings and motivations.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this experience and there are many more fascinating tales to tell, but the clock is ticking and my attention must shift to alternate material. Nevertheless I can’t imagine a more inspirational and brilliant start to the year, event wise at least, thus I hearby announce my most ambitious project yet – the Menagerie Herzog season. This Matterhorn of reviews will assault all the material contained within this wonderful bible of brilliance, and maybe a few side posts and musings over the coming months and potential years, I’ve already arranged a BFI screening of one of the Herzog classics in February which should get things moving. In the meantime I have a few more Lang and noir related pictures to cover and mix things up while the immediate weeks will be preoccupied with some Oscar related material, so I hope you’ll join me on this epic journey. After eight years of modest evolution dear reader this humble blog project of mine still feels like a pathetic yell into the dark, an erratic yearning for reason and importance in the face of indiscriminate oblivion, but we must exercise the intellect regardless of its genesis or purpose – any other path might result in indiscriminate madness. Even among the animals;