Werner Herzon on Life

Werner Herzog Directing

This really isn’t a review. It’s really a collection of Werner Herzog quotes attempting to convince you to buy his “biography”.

Werner Herzog is one of the most irreverent and influential filmmakers of the last few decades. I was first introduced to Herzog by his concurrently tragic and comedic documentary Grizzly Man. I fell in love with Herzog in his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Filming prehistoric cave paintings in France, he asks the question: “Can we ever truly understand what was going on in the minds of these artists across such an unfathomable abyss of time?” The beauty of history encapsulated: touching another human being thousands of years before.

I had the same humbling experience when learning about Gobekli Tepe, an 11,000 year old structure which has blown up our understanding of human prehistory. The structure (temple?) is so old we know nothing about the people that built it. It’s so old that our theories about human history don’t allow us to picture the culture, attitudes, or beliefs of these people. They’re ghosts with our faces.

For those of us lucky enough to grow up in comfort and security the great challenge is to find and create a life with meaning. To escape the ennui of a life obsession with comfort and consumption in which the consumer is consumed. And Herzog speaks passionately against this anti-life:

"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 at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway 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.

As Robert Inchausti writes, it’s in the air we breathe:

"Nikolai Berdyaev saw middle-classness as the most debased level as "a state of the soul characterized by a degrading clutching after security and small-mindedness incapable of imagining a world much larger than one's own.  For him, the bourgeois didn't worship money per se, but they were addicted to personal success, security, and happiness.  For these things, they willingly compromised their honor, ignored injustice, and betrayed truth, replacing these high values with trite moralism and facile bromides that blur important distinctions and justify selfish actions." 

This is the gift Herzog offers. Not just words, but a life lived. And lest I be accused of idolatry, the purpose isn’t to place Herzog on a pedestal. Herzog isn’t “right”, the argument isn’t linear. Rather, heroes are lodestones. Herzog’s actions and words can be our compass into our own wilds – our most outlying provinces.

And that takes courage.

"Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point…" -C.S. Lewis

"Listen carefully to what is being said here: C.S. Lewis is suggesting that courage is the greatest of all virtues, because unless a person possesses that virtue, they have no real capacity for preserving any of the others when it really matters… People tend to be obedient only up to the point where it costs them. But this is actually what it means to be cowards - to be unwilling to confront a reasonable degree of fear and anxiety when it matters most."  -Hirsch/Frost

In a life well-lived one has many stories. In fact the stories we are able to tell about ourselves and our lives are the true barometer of our “success”. Millions of dollars and a Lambo are paled by a well-wrought adventure because in that story we find fullness.

And Herzog has many tales to tell. Whether spreading outlandish rumours to counter wild rumours, finding a Nazi weapons cache as a child or his childhood hero Siegel Hans outrunning the law blowing his trumpet at mountaintop to mountaintop. These are his images and narratives.

Does your work make you happy?

"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 has also taken everything from me."

Be curious.

"Everything we're forced to learn at school we quickly forget, but the things we set out to learn ourselves - to quench a thirst - are never forgotten, and inevitably become an important part of our existence."

And Herzog is philisophical. Often our truths become banal, reflections of our own intellectual cowardice and the commercialised culture around us. “Personal growth” and financial success. Love reduced to a romantic emotion. Housing prices and petty frustrations. But we need to be reminded by our luminaries that there are greater Truths out there. That there are greater ideas and actions worth believing in. A greater life worth living.

Herzog, like Joseph Campbell, harps on our bygone images. Our recycled, borrowed, commercialized imagery chokes our imagination and curiosity. Our heroes become superheroes, and serialized ones at that.

    "Our inability and lack of desire to seek fresh imagery means we are surrounded by worn-out, banal, useless and exhausted images, limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution. When I look at postcards in tourist shops and the images and advertisements in magazines, or turn on the television, or walk into a travel agency and see huge posters with those same tedious images of the Grand Canyon, I sense that something dangerous is emerging. Just as a person without a memory will struggle to survive in this world, so will someone who lacks images that reflect his inner state. We are, as a race, aware of certain dangers that surround us. We comprehend that global warming and overcrowding of the planet are real dangers for mankind. We have come to understand that the destruction of the environment is another enormous danger, that resources are being wasted at an extraordinary rate. 

    But I believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude, as serious a defect as being without memory. I’ll repeat it again as long as I’m able to: we will die out like dinosaurs if we don’t develop adequate images. We need to learn to adapt our visual language to new and unforeseen situations. If our ingenuity isn’t up to the task, if we aren’t able to create fresh images, we will be stunted in our growth, unable to face the unforeseen challenges charging at us. All too many images are at a standstill, and consequently meaningless. Look at the depiction of Jesus Christ in Western iconography, unchanged since the kitsch of the Nazarene school of painting in the late nineteenth century. Representations like this are sufficient proof that Christianity is moribund. Why doesn’t anyone ever paint a chubby or laughing Jesus? 

    Look at France in the 1870s, by which time the Industrial Revolution had transformed the country, yet its art still depicted the Napoleonic era. The Impressionists weren’t describing the future, they were updating things. You see the same thing with language. In Latin America they speak a lively Spanish compared to formal Castilian Spanish, as if the conquest of the New World paralysed language back home, creating some kind of impasse that has yet to be overcome. When a language becomes immobile, unable to adapt, the culture that created it disappears into the abyss of history. 

    We need images in accordance with our civilisation and innermost conditioning, which is why I appreciate any film that searches for novelty, no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. Years ago I saw an astonishing four hour film by Theo Angelopoulos. Everyone said it was too long, but the images awoke new ideas in my mind, so to me it felt much too short. The struggle to find unprocessed imagery is never-ending, but it’s our duty to dig like archaeologists and search our violated landscapes. We live in an era when established values are no longer valid, when prodigious discoveries are being made every year, when catastrophes of unbelievable proportions occur weekly. In ancient Greek the word “chaos” means “gaping void” or “yawning emptiness.” The most effective response to the chaos in our lives is the creation of new forms of literature, music, poetry, art and cinema."

Step out, risk, live.

"Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliché. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinise contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere. Thwart institutional cowardice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands. Don’t preach on deaf ears. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. Walk straight ahead, never detour. Learn on the job. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver. Don’t be fearful of rejection. Develop your own voice. Day one is the point of no return. Know how to act alone and in a group. Guard your time carefully. A badge of honour is to fail a film-theory class. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. Guerrilla tactics are best. Take revenge if need be. Get used to the bear behind you. Form clandestine Rogue cells everywhere."

So, as Sam Gamgee once said:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the road and if you don’t keep your feet there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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