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Definitive discussion with one of cinema's true originals.
on 21 March 2005
Herzog is without question, one of the defining figures of 20th century filmmaking, easily deserving of his reputation as an eccentric genius and practitioner of cinematic poetry, and of course, more than worthy of his creative association with people like Bergman, Dryer, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and so on. His films seem absolutely alien when compared to the work of both his contemporaries and those that have followed in his wake- with no filmmaker since managing to perfectly pull off his trademark combination of surreal stylisation with moments of almost documentary realism - whilst his use of landscape and location was always as important to the feel of his films as both the narrative and characterisations. In his most celebrated film, Fitzcarraldo, he created his own parallels with the central character - by undertaking the mammoth task of hauling a giant steamship over a foreboding, Peruvian mountain terrain - which, would not only become the vision of his cinematic obsessions made real, but would also give birth to a number of rumours, legends and falsities that have arisen around the filmmaker throughout his career.
In this book, Herzog and interviewer Paul Cronin attempt to dispel some of these myths, whilst simultaneously creating some new ones of their own (with Herzog being the living proof that truth really is stranger than fiction), with the pair casting a critical eye over the filmmaker's career, from his first film Signs of Life in the late 1960's, to his more recent endeavour, 2001's Invincible, as well as discussing his childhood in the secluded Bavaria countryside, his years as a globetrotting youth, his volatile relationship with the actor Klaus Kinski and his thoughts and ruminations on life, work, travel and cinema. As a subject, Herzog is fascinating... after all, this is the man who made a film about rebellious dwarfs (Even Dwarfs Started Small), cast a former mental patient in one of the greatest films ever made (The Enigma of Kasper Hauser), filmed on an active volcano (La Soufrière), hypnotised an entire cast in order to visualise their escalating madness (Heart of Glass), remade one of the all-time-classic German expressionist pictures in full colour, and with Kinski (Nosferatu - pre-dating Gus Van Sant's similarly post-modernist update of Hitchcock's Psycho) and once made a bet with fellow filmmaker Errol Morris about the documenting of an American pet cemetery, which culminated in Herzog having to eat his shoe (Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe).
He's certainly an unconventional fellow here, dispelling the auteur theory and notions of art to instead talk about cinema as a craft or athletic event (Herzog's "utopian film school" would entail boxing classes, cross-country running and a 500 mile trek cross-country) and yet, despite such seemingly provocative diversions, he remains an intelligent, humorous and exhilarating host throughout. The best and most interesting chapters of the book are obviously the ones that look at his most famous works, films, for example, like the classic adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God, the experimental Heart of Glass, the heartbreaking Kasper Hauser, the touching (and strangely iconic) comic-melodrama Strozseck and the much misunderstood Nosferatu. The longest discussion in the book is obviously the conversations about Fitzcarraldo, which is probably Herzog's most archetypal (and certainly most controversial) work, although the discussions here tend to focus more on Kinski's erratic behaviour, the difficulties surrounding the location and the subsequent negative press (Herzog wrongly being accused of putting lives in danger), as opposed to the technical and ideological merits of the film. It's also nice to see lesser-know Herzog works getting some attention, notably his first two films Signs of Life and the hypnotic Fata Morgana - which certainly set the template for his future works - not to mention his great documentaries like The Land of Silence and Darkness, The Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner and Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
Other films are slightly glossed over - particularly the problematic Where the Green Ants Dream (which Herzog considers too "preachy"), the much criticised Cobra Verde (his last film with Kinski) and the unanimously despised (even by the director) Cerro Torre: Scream of Stone - which isn't really a problem, since these are lesser Herzog endeavours... however, it is sad to see the great Woyzeck so briefly discussed, as for me, it represents the ultimate creative pinnacle of all the Herzog/Kinski collaborations. This is only a slight (personal) criticism, of course, with the rest of the book really offering us a deeper insight into the real-life persona of this enigmatic, genius-like figure. As others have said, Herzog on Herzog is easily one of the best books in the Faber interview series - ranking alongside similar books on David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Lars von Trier - as it offers us a greatly entertaining and wholly definitive look at one of the most individual and important filmmakers of the last fifty years.