- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

Werner Herzog is one of the most fascinating figures in film.

He’s the only director who has made a film on every continent — “Encounters at the End of the World,” which received a best-documentary Oscar nomination this year, was a study of Antarctica and its people. The well-traveled German once walked from Munich to Paris.

The film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” chronicled a promise he kept after Errol Morris finally completed his first film; he had vowed to eat his shoe as a way of encouraging a promising director he saw as unlikely to finish anything.

Talking to Mr. Herzog by telephone earlier this month for his new film “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” one is struck by how consistently amusing he is — telling funny anecdotes and giving opinionated answers in his distinctive, accented English.

Yet he claims he doesn’t like being the subject of conversation. “I’m only talking about this because you have pressured me into talking about myself,” he says.

He’s referring to questions about Abel Ferrara, director of the original 1992 film “Bad Lieutenant.” Mr. Herzog says his film isn’t a remake, and in fact, the films share only a general plot. Their styles are completely different, the first film being an allegorical drama, the new one a very black comedy. Mr. Herzog asked producers to change the title, but they refused.

Mr. Ferrara famously said, on hearing of the new film, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.” Mr. Herzog responded by saying he had never heard of Mr. Ferrara or seen any of his films.

Americans love watching baseball to see players argue with umpires, and it’s the same with such wars of words in the film world, Mr. Herzog says. He says he wasn’t trying to stoke the flames with his own comments — “I don’t watch many films,” he says.

It’s a strange thing for a filmmaker to say. Most directors seem to like keeping up with their colleagues, can easily list their favorite films and grew up in front of the big screen. Not Mr. Herzog. He was born in Munich, but after a neighbor’s home was destroyed during World War II bombings, the family moved to a small Bavarian town. He never saw films while growing up because none were shown there. He learned about films as a teenager, back in Munich, by reading of them in an encyclopedia. From then on, he says, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

He worked nights as a steel-factory welder to make money for short films and made his first feature, “Signs of Life,” in 1968. He made his name four years later with “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” and went on to have success with 1979’s “Nosferatu the Vampyre” and 2007’s “Rescue Dawn.” He also has made such nonfiction films as “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” and “Grizzly Man.”

Mr. Herzog says he doesn’t like talking about himself, but he readily offers details of his filmmaking exploits. He’s a “serious professional,” he says, whom producers “want to marry” because he comes in on time and under budget.

He shows no signs of slowing down even though, at 67, he’s past official retirement age. This year alone, he has made three films. Two were nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival (the first time a single director has had two nods in a single year): “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?”

Based on a true story and co-produced by David Lynch, the latter film is about a man who killed his mother after reading Euripides’ “Orestes.” “The Piano Tuner,” due out next year, is based on a historical novel about a British man in Victorian-era Burma.

“I’m not a workaholic,” Mr. Herzog insists. He just works seriously and efficiently. He didn’t write his latest film, which stars Nicolas Cage as the dirty cop of the title, but he added plenty to the script — the visually inspired sequences of the officer’s crack hallucinations have Mr. Herzog’s singular stamp all over them.

Perhaps the director gets so much done because he doesn’t waste a lot of time talking to his cast about the motivations of their characters, a process he considers “nonsense.”

In between making three films, he has found time to release a book — “Conquest of the Useless” chronicles his difficult time making “Fitzcarraldo” in the jungles of Peru — and start a film school. Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School will be as unconventional as the director who has given it a name. As its mission statement says, it “is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum.” Its first session will take place over a weekend in January in Los Angeles.

Mr. Herzog started the school because he was overwhelmed with requests for mentoring from young filmmakers. He seems genuinely interested in helping young talent develop — it’s a passion that might be traced to goading on the young Mr. Morris with a promise to eat his shoe if Mr. Morris finally made his film about pet cemeteries.

He’s been deluged with applications, getting dozens every week. He’ll decide if a filmmaker is “rogue” enough to attend by looking at his work.

But didn’t Mr. Herzog say he doesn’t watch much film?

“I only need to see a few minutes to tell whether it’s got that spark,” he explains.

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