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Werner Herzog on fact and fiction in Japan’s rent-a-family business

We speak to the cult director on his latest film, Family Romance, a hybrid work of fiction and documentary that leaves you questioning what’s real

It’s the fifth day of lockdown and Werner Herzog is on loudspeaker. His voice, a thick Bavarian drawl, comes and goes between crackles of white noise. The cult director, 77, has a famed distrust of the modern world, and prides himself on using his mobile and computers only when necessary. We’re speaking on his landline in LA, where he lives with his wife. Previously, the plan had been to convene at a hotel somewhere in central London, but as the current state of global pandemics would have it, his trip, and the two theatrical releases he planned to promote, have been cancelled.

“I’ve kind of hit over the head twice,” he says. “The funny thing is I have two releases of two films going on within a fortnight. I don’t even know whether they’re going to be released in time or not.” Those familiar with the filmmaker’s work will know that Herzog has a penchant for dropping films in pairs – something that only he, who’s released over 70 films in his 50-year career, could seemingly pull off. In 2016, the German director debuted Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, a critical look at the digital age, shortly followed by Into the Inferno, another chapter in the director’s decades-long fascination with volcanoes and nature.

His latest offerings are Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin and Family Romance LCC. The former is a heartfelt documentary tribute to Chatwin, a friend of Herzog’s, a prolific travel writer, and the author of In Patagonia. The latter is about Japan’s strange rent-a-family business, a concept so Herzogian it’s a wonder the filmmaker didn’t dream it up on his own. To make matters all the more bizarre, the film, which is a scripted docu-drama, is named after a real-life company, and stars its real-life founder, Ichii, as the protagonist.

Family Romance concerns itself with the truth and falsities of human nature. Over one and a half hours, we follow Ichii across various jobs and tourist destinations, with each situation weirder than the one that came before it. The main storyline begins with a divorced woman hiring Ichii to impersonate her ex-husband and befriend her troubled 12-year-old daughter (who’s too young to remember what her actual dad looks like) with the purpose of feeding personal information back to her. Along the way, he’s hired to play dead in an open-casket funeral, and stands in for a train conductor who made the mistake of allowing a bullet train to leave 20 seconds early, taking the blame from his boss.

“The platform of the bullet train is a high security area and you can’t get any permits to shoot, absolutely impossible,” Herzog says. “I filmed there anyway.” This, admittedly, isn’t too surprising to hear, coming from the filmmaker who  started his career by stealing a camera from a film school, who got shot by an air rifle midway through an interview and kept going without missing a beat, who he ate his own shoe after losing a bet (the list goes on). “I filmed it and we knew I could film it only once, because I would be arrested if it did it twice,” he says. “And within 30 seconds actually, security men came rushing in, frantically calling for backup.”

In 2018, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman went to Japan to interview Ichii and many others involved in the rent-a-family industry. Batuman describes how Ichii first came up with the company name, Family Romance, which he says he found by Googling phrases related to the idea of an imaginary family. The company’s name references a 1909 essay by Sigmund Freud, The Family Romance of Neurotics, about children who think their parents are imposters, and that their real parents are actually nobles or royals.

“The paradoxical situation is that although everything is performance, everything is a lie, everything is fabricated and acted, there is one thing always authentic, and that’s emotions” – Werner Herzog

Still, Herzog discounts any connection to Freud’s work. “I think Ishii’s not aware of that,” Herzog starts. When I point out that it was reported in the New Yorker, he responds: “I’m certain. I assume he’s never even heard of Freud.” Stubborn interactions like these come to characterise our conversation, with Herzog quickly becoming a slippery fish when he’s not the one asking the questions. “Anyway, psychology is the biggest mistake of the 20th century,” he adds. “I mean, it started a little before that, but it’s one of these gigantic mistakes that makes me believe the 20th century, in its totality, was a mistake.” He refuses to elaborate.

In Freud’s essay, the “family fantasy” allows the child to hold onto the idea that their parents are infallible just that bit longer. It’s not that the child is replacing her parents with a new fiction, rather that they’re exalting them to their former glory. In the case of Ichii and the 12-year-old girl, it’s not that he’s replacing her ‘real’ father with Ichii, but that he’s a mirror onto which she projects her ideals of what a ‘father’ is

You see a similar exchange happening with the film’s locations: a hedgehog sanctuary, Ueno park, the Tokyo Skytree. As tourist destinations, they naturally have an artificial feel. But, for Herzog, they’re sites for real intimacy. “The paradoxical situation is that although everything is performance, everything is a lie, everything is fabricated and acted, there is one thing always authentic, and that’s emotions,” Herzog says. “The girl lies to her ‘father’, who lies to be her father. She’s lying to him as well, but her emotions for him are authentic.”

What about our everyday interactions – aren’t they just performances we project onto our experiences? “We do it all the time,” he tells me. “It can even be towards something animated. In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are companion robots. My wife’s been there and she’s seen a fluffy creature, the size of a dog, with big eyes that’s capable of reading 800 different facial expressions, and reacting to them with speech, saying, ‘You don’t trust me’.” His voice raises, cartoonishly. “Although she was absolutely set to reject this artificial creature, this fluffy, wonderful, sweet creature, she said she was hooked within five minutes.” He stops. “And I believe it.”

“Some people believe I make documentaries, which is not true. Most of them are feature films in disguise, anyway” – Werner Herzog

Watching Family Romance, it’s surprising that Herzog decided to dramatise what is already a stranger-than-fiction phenomenon. It’s both filmed and structured like a documentary, and it uses a real person who works within the real rent-a-family industry as its star – you half expect the director’s trademark magniloquent voiceover to offer his philosophical, critical perspective. “Some people believe I make documentaries, which is not true. Most of them are feature films in disguise, anyway,” Herzog says. “And in the last ten years, I’ve made five or six narrative feature films, which is somehow overlooked. That’s a lot when you look at the average director in the film industry, who makes a feature film every one or two years. It’s obviously not a documentary. Even a primate would understand this is a fictional film. It was always clear it had to be a coherent story.” 

The absence of Herzog as a ‘character’ himself breaks from the expectations we have of him as a documentarian: Werner Herzog the meme, the swashbuckling vagabond with a camera, who speaks exclusively in existential one-liners and ‘Wernerisms’. The self-caricature who’s inspired his very own ‘Wernerbot’ chatbot, who cameos in Star Wars, who narrates high fashion trainer ads. Removed from the narrative, the lines between the real and unreal, authentic and inauthentic, become blurred. “Audiences very often just look at the mechanics of the story,” he says. “They do not realise that there’s a second, parallel story going on within it. There’s always a separate inner story that occurs in the audience alone, and not on the screen.”

When creating the screenplay for Family Romance, Herzog based many of the on-screen interactions on conversations he had with Ishii, while adding some events that were “completely my invention”. The element of performance within the otherwise real setting gets at the deeper truth of humanity that Herzog has chased throughout his career. “There are very deep questions about our performative life,” he admits. “How much is performance in our lives? How much do we stylise ourselves?”

Family Romance, LLC is available on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Showcase, and as virtual screenings through your local cinemas on