Werner Herzog, Setting the Record Straight

Robert Avila May 9, 2006

Clarifications, takings of exception, and first-of-all’s — these characteristically preceded a number of remarks by Werner Herzog spoken two Wednesdays back at the Castro Theater, where the legendary German filmmaker (this year’s recipient of the Film Society Directing Award) was on hand for an hour-long Q & A with film critic and scholar David Sterritt, ahead of the SF Film Fest screening of Herzog’s “The Wild Blue Yonder.” Accompanied by a slightly bumptious intensity, it might have smacked of presumption, pomposity, or prickliness in someone else. It was hard to argue with Herzog, however, who was as fascinating and gracious as he was particular. And it was clear that for the adoring throng swarming the floor and balcony at the Castro — “More seats than we sold for Robert Altman,” remarked an impressed Graham Leggat, SF Film Society executive director — and turning the air downright tropical, Herzog was a fragrant garden of raised-finger pronouncements, self-effacing demurrals, and unsolicited rebuttals well worth a replay.

“First of all, I would like to address your optimism about success,” was his first riposte to the urbane and good-natured Sterritt, who had led off his first question with a nod to the impressive career referenced in a preceding trailer of clips-spanning 1971’s “Fata Morgana” to 2005’s “Grizzly Man.” Success hardly came easily was the point Herzog wanted stressed — marshalling quirky anecdotal information to the task. Then he turned to Sterritt’s question, about whether the director sensed a tension between the physicality captured by his camera (in “Fitzcarraldo”‘s famous overland ship sequence, for instance) and the insubstantial nature of the light-and-shadow medium itself. “Even though it’s a very physical thing [the way I make films], it transforms into an opera event. So it’s not for the sake of naturalness. The ship defying gravity becomes so stylized, it’s like music.”

Some other attempts at setting the record straight:

“All my films are mainstream. . . . And when you look at most of what is created in the film industry, it is too bizarre to even call it central. It’s much too marginal.”

“I have no roots in the New German Cinema. It’s just a myth.”

“I never learned from anyone, only from bad films — what not to do.”

On whether he goes to the movies a lot: “No. Last year, I saw two films. One I forgot, and the other was about the spring rites of American college kids in Cancun, Mexico, and the only question was who was getting laid…. It sounded good, but it was a box-office disaster.”

On the line between documentary and fiction in his work: “It’s all movies for me. I don’t really make documentaries…they’re something else. Let’s not label them. Let’s just call them movies and ask if they’re good. Do I take the imagination far enough, and take the audience along in the journey?”

On whether “Rescue Dawn” [his latest, still unfinished film] is a remake of his documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”: “It’s not a remake. It’s unfinished business.”

On academia: “It is a place of utmost absence of human pathos. It is absolutely wrong and it is to be avoided.”

In response to an audience member’s question about the fascination in his films with flight: “Oh, I wish I could fly…. My greatest wish as an adolescent was becoming world champion of sky flying. That was abruptly halted due to a catastrophic accident of a friend with whom I was training. But [in my films] others fly for me.”

In response to an audience member’s attempt to pass him a screenplay that would reportedly appeal to his interest in “freaky people”: “I’m not interested in ‘freaky people.’ I’m into essential people…. I’m not into freaks.”

Finally, Sterritt wrapped up with a segue into “The Wild Blue Yonder” that proffered the adjective “uncategorizable.” “Let’s forget about categories!” pleaded Herzog. “It’s just a movie!”

Well, a Werner Herzog movie at least, since there in the dark, now that the film was underway, there was no mistaking — in the humor, cheek, and rapture of this “science fiction fantasy” — the personality only recently on stage, full of the poet’s ceaseless engagement and the film lover’s ecstatic gaze.