With both of the filmmaker’s forthcoming releases postponed due to coronavirus, we look back at his craziest tales and astute Wernerisms
Werner Herzog is his art. The swashbuckling Bavarian director, who has made over 60 feature films and documentaries in the past half-century, is recognised for his extreme commitment to gonzo filmmaking that’s taken him everywhere from the burning oil fields in Kuwait (Lessons of Darkness), the jungles of Peru (Fitzcarraldo), and the paws of a pack of hungry bears (Grizzly Man).
Aside from being a prolific arthouse director, he’s also a living meme. The man is a caricature of himself, speaking only in poetic vignettes or ‘Wernerisms’ that take even the most banal of subjects into the most extreme existential depths. When filming his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, he holds a mirror up to society through the medium of penguins, saying: “Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events. We seem to be next”. In Grizzly Man, he looks into the eyes of a killer bear, uttering the words: “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I can see only the overwhelming indifference of nature”.
With both the filmmaker’s upcoming film releases Family Romance and Nomad postponed due to coronavirus, here’s a little dose of Herzog to keep you occupied – a list of all the strangest, most bizarre things he’s ever done.
HOW HE STARTED HIS CAREER BY STEALING A CAMERA
You can’t deny that Werner didn’t start his career as he meant to go on. Upon deciding to become a filmmaker, the then-19-year-old Herzog stole a 35mm camera from a Munich film school, with not a second of regret. “I don’t consider it theft,” he once said. “It was just a necessity. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right.” Well, if you can’t afford it, steal it?
HE WALKED FROM MUNICH TO PARIS
If there’s one thing Herzog loves more than the plight of man versus nature, it’s walking – though, he doesn’t call it that, but rather “travelling on foot”. Not only did he propose to his first wife by walking a thousand miles across the Alps, but when his mentor, the film critic Lotte Eisner fell ill, Herzog took it upon himself to walk from Munich to Paris in an effort to see her – he believed that trekking through the harsh winter would save her life. The trip took three months and is documented in his 1980 diary Of Walking in Ice.
He further elaborated on his love for walking – I mean, ‘travelling on foot’ – in his book Herzog on Herzog: “Traveling on foot has nothing to do with exercise,” he said. “When I am walking I fall deep into dreams. I float through fantasies and find myself inside unbelievable stories. I literally walk through whole novels and films, and football matches. I do not even look at where I am stepping, but I never lose my direction.”
HE CHILLED WITH A GRIZZLY BEAR THAT JUST ATE SOMEONE
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of 2005’s Grizzly Man, it goes a little like this: wannabe actor, environmentalist, and documentary-maker Timothy Treadwell trades society for the Alaskan wilderness and ‘befriends’ a pack of grizzly bears, who he names adorable things like Mr Chocolate and Sgt Brown. That’s cute, right? Well, not really. The true story of Treadwell and his luckless girlfriend saw them swiftly become Mr Chocolate’s lunch, leaving behind hundreds of hours of footage that Herzog turns into a documentary.
You’d think that literally hearing the final screams of someone being mauled to death by a bear would be enough to deter someone from the wilderness for life (the documentary was enough to instill in me a deep and irrational phobia of bears), but not Werner. Commenting on the above photo, he told Rolling Stone: “My wife, Lena, took a photo where you can see a grizzly bear right behind me. She was worried about my safety. But I couldn’t care less. I only disliked the situation because the bear was so close that I could smell his very foul breath. It’s a very foul breath. So I didn’t like that. But that was the only thing.” Riiight.
HE ATE HIS SHOE
When Werner makes a bet, he’s not playing around. In this instance, the German filmmaker told his friend, the fellow director Errol Morris, that he’d eat his shoe if Morris ever finished his documentary Gates of Heaven. Clearly, Morris did finish his film, and Herzog, true to his word, ate his shoe at its premiere. Naturally, this too was made into a documentary, because what can be more Werner Herzog than a man flying too close to the sun and being forced to eat a leathery sole as comeuppance?
HE WAS SHOT
In an example of life imitating art, this 2015 clip sees a random bullet wing Werner in the gut during a live interview. Not only does it feel like this is something that could only really happen to Herzog, but the situation is made all the more iconic when he carries on like nothing’s happened, because it’s just “an insignificant bullet”.
HE RESCUED JOAQUIN PHOENIX AFTER A CAR CRASH
Not all heroes wear capes. Again, in a turn of events that would seemingly only really happen to Herzog, the director found himself at the scene of a car crash in 2006, with none other than Joaquin Phoenix in the wreckage. As the story goes, Phoenix flipped his car while driving in Hollywood, and instead of climbing out, the Inherent Vice actor decided to light a cigarette. That’s fine, right? Apparently not, because petrol was leaking into the car. Fortunately for Joaquin, Werner tapped on the windscreen of the upside-down automobile to get the actor’s attention, before smashing a window and helping him out of the wreckage.
HE MAKES PENGUINS EXISTENTIAL
Perhaps one of the greatest existential moments in modern cinema, Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World features one scene that warrants particular attention: penguins are prone to existential crises – something that only Werner could deduce.
In this ‘Schopenhauer on ice’ spectacle, we see a “deranged” penguin walk away from its huddle, a black speck in a sea of whiteness. Catching him and bringing him back will make no difference, explains Werner. He’ll simply turn around and head again. It turns out that even penguins are human, all too human.
HE CAN HYPNOTISE CHICKENS
In his book Herzog on Herzog, the filmmaker describes a very niche hatred of chickens. “The enormity of their stupidity, is just overwhelming. You have to do yourself a favour when you’re out in the countryside and you see a chicken: Try to look a chicken in the eye with great intensity, and the intensity of stupidity that is looking back at you is just amazing,” he says, adding, casually: “By the way, it’s very easy to hypnotize a chicken; they are very prone to hypnosis, and in one or two films I have actually shown that.”
Herzog later clarified his method in a Reddit AMA (lol?), where he told users to “put its beak on the floor, and then, with determination, draw a line of chalk away from it. Release the chicken, and you will see it will be hypnotised”. You can’t deny the man has a deep psychological understanding of birds.