“I Do Things the Accountants of Truth Would Not Do”

Werner Herzog discusses his two new films.

The German director Werner Herzog has released two crime dramas in the past month: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which stars Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, and Eva Mendes; and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which opened last week and stars Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny, and Michael Shannon. I met Herzog, who lives in Los Angeles, during a recent visit to New York to promote the films. I asked him about his newfound taste for police procedurals and his continuing interest in insanity.

Jacob Weisberg: As opposed to so many of your films set in exotic places, or in some period in the past, you’ve made two in close succession set in the American present. Why have you taken this turn?

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog: A good story is a good story. It doesn’t really matter if it’s in Peru, 16th century, or in Germany, 1820s, they’re always lively stories I’m after. Of course, I do live in America now; maybe some of that translates into what I’m doing. But I should point out that My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done was actually written a dozen years or so before I actually made it. David Lynch was the one who threw the match and ignited the whole thing, which was dormant.

J.W.: I understand it is based on a true story.

W.H.: It is, yes. My Son, My Son is based on a real murder story which took place, I don’t know exactly, some 25, 30 years ago, in San Diego. But it could have happened anywhere in the United States.

J.W.: As opposed to documentaries, which have been a focus of your more recent work, you’ve returned now to dramatic feature films. Does that represent a change in your interests?

W.H.: The documentaries are not real documentaries. Many of them are feature films in disguise, as I keep saying. And of course I have made quite a few feature films recently, like Invincible, Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son, My Son, that was all in the last 10 years. However I think I made 15 films in the last 10 years.

J.W.: So that distinction doesn’t mean very much to you. And of course there are

W.H.: Sure, of course. I stylize, I invent, I do things the accountants of truth would not do. But I’m a storyteller.

J.W.: It’s very apparent in your films, to someone who has seen a lot of them, when there’s a moment of fiction that you’re using for some sort of dramatic purpose. It’s interesting to compare you to Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish writer. There’s been a lot of debate about his use of fiction in nonfiction work.

W.H.: And it’s a very stupid, a very dull debate, because he’s a great storyteller, and what he does—and I am, by the way, doing a very similar thing—he intensifies truth by invention. By dint of declaration he creates something which gives you a much deeper insight into the truth of, let’s say, Africa or Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, and it’s totally legitimate and the debate is very, very silly. Let the accountants be happy with their debate. I’m not going to participate.

J.W.: These two new films—and again it’s hard not to see them in combination, because they are coming out in such close succession—both of them have elements of the police procedural, so you might think these were both much more conventional films than they are.

W.H.: I’ve always made—I claim that I’ve always made—mainstream movies. Because when you have a real good story to tell, real good actors, it’s always mainstream. Sometimes in a way it was secret mainstream. But a film like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, made 40 years ago almost, is mainstream today. It was not at the time. And the police detective stories, the detective side, in both films, isn’t that important. And you can never predict what is coming next. Neither in the Bad Lieutenant, nor in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. It is unpredictable, it is not like you see very often in movies nowadays, where you can foretell after five minutes this detective is going to solve the mystery, or this young man will fall in love with this girl, and it actually happens, without any fail. In particular, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, you can never know what’s coming next.

J.W.: Both Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son are about madness, which has of course been a theme in your career. What can you say about the madness of these two characters?

W.H.: Well, you should be careful. I think in Nicolas Cage’s case, it’s completely demented, and it should be as vile and as debased and as hilarious as it can get. In My Son, My Son it is not the clinical insanity that interested me. You see, I met the real murderer once and decided not to do it again, and part of his insanity was, he believed that he would, by sacrificing his own mother, save the planet. And he wanted to be crucified live on national television. So he was totally upset that the trial didn’t even happen, and he was declared unfit for standing trial, by reason of insanity. So if I had been into that side, the clinical insanity, it would have been an uninteresting film, it would have been an interesting case for clinical psychiatrists, but not for me as a moviemaker, and not for you as the audience.

J.W.: I’m surprised you left out that messiah complex aspect … the crucifixion sounds like an amazing image going through this character’s mind, but you chose not to—

W.H.: There were many other things that I know about him that are even crazier, but I’m not going to speak about it on camera.

J.W.: And why do you say you chose not to? I assume you saw him in an institutionalized setting.

W.H.: Because of the story. I’m into a very scary story, and into something that I think you normally do not see in a horror film. I say it with great caution, horror film, because what I made is not a horror film, but it is a very scary movie, and the fear is always anonymous, always unexplained, always not reducible to, let’s say, a statement of insanity.

J.W.: As in your other films, there’s violence, but it’s not gruesome, we never see gore. Is there a reason you choose very seldom to show that?

W.H.: You don’t see any violence at all in My Son, My Son. You don’t see the murder. I personally as an audience don’t want to see violence, in particular when it is violence against the defenseless. I don’t want to see violence against children, I do not want to see violence against women, I do not want to see the rape of a woman on camera, on the screen, I just don’t want it, so it translates into the way I make movies; you don’t see it.

J.W.: Let me ask you about Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant. I’ve never been clear on whether Nicolas Cage is a good actor or a bad actor—

W.H.: How can you ask that?

J.W.: There were parts, there were pieces, where he was like the hunchback of Notre Dame doing a Richard Nixon impression. It’s so over the top, that he seems to have an ironic relationship with the part, or you have an ironic relationship with his playing the part.

W.H.: No, I think his acting is absolutely formidable. Nothing is over the top. The situation is over the top. You see actors over the top, the famous face twisters, who are not really actors. He is not a face twister; there is always something extraordinary bursting out of him.

J.W.: So, there’s no irony in the treatment of that.

W.H.: Oh sure, it’s hilarious. I don’t even know what irony exactly is, but I think it’s always hilarious, and when you look at Michael Shannon, there’s also something, in a way, although they’re unrelated in their way of acting, you can immediately tell from five miles away, there’s a formidable actor at work. You see it with Nicolas Cage, you see it with Michael Shannon.

J.W.: In My Son, My Son, there’s a play within a play, and a director with a German accent is directing Michael Shannon, who, as he becomes more and more unhinged, can’t do the part and has to be thrown out of the play, but at the same time this director retains this affection for him. It’s hard not to read some of you into that story.

W.H.: I would caution it’s not such a straightforward sort of relationship between me and actors. You are alluding to probably a crazy guy like Klaus Kinski. No, it’s something different. The film is based on the staging of the Oresteia, where the leading actor has to murder his mother. That the director in this film has a German accent is simply because Udo Kier is a German, and I like him, I love him as an actor, and I asked him to do the part. But it could have been a Russian accent, or it could have been whatever accent, it doesn’t really matter that much. In a way, you are right; I love to work with actors, and I love them beyond the flaws that some of them have. The personal flaws. The flaws that do not translate on the screen.

J.W.: I’ve seen you quoted as saying that you’d rather die than see an analyst. Can you elaborate?

W.H.: I think it’s a mistake of the 20th century. You could not live in a house that was illuminated to every last single corner. And human beings become uninhabitable when they are scrutinized and illuminated into their last little dark abysses. Just leave people as they are and don’t touch it. I think psychoanalysis is one of the great mistakes of the 20th century. It’s one of the reasons why I would dismiss the 20th century as a mistake. I think the 20th century in its entirety was a mistake. Psychoanalysis is just a small brick in my argument, that I could build up.

J.W.: Filmmaking developed in the 20th century.

W.H.: Yes, yes, some good sides as well. No doubt.

J.W.: But I’m interested in what you say about psychoanalysis. Is the concern that self-understanding would make one less of an artist, or make people less interesting in general?

W.H.: I think people become uninhabitable, as I say, and less interesting. There has to be something mysterious. Just think about being with a woman who had not, no mystery left at all. If everything was explained about a woman, it wouldn’t fascinate me anymore. If I could be explained like an encyclopedia, it would be awful.

J.W.: I was just looking at the prospectus for your Rogue Film School. You say, “Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your boundaries, and inner growth.” Are you having a hard time with the population in L.A.?

W.H.: It’s with the population in general, with the pseudo-babble of New Age. So I’m just making a provocative point.

J.W.: Has this happened so far, this unconventional film school, where you don’t learn the techniques of filmmaking but you learn to think?

W.H.: No, I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I have stopped. The deadline of application was passed a fortnight ago, almost a fortnight ago. I have invited people now, out of a huge amount of applications, and the first long weekend seminar is going to happen early in January

J.W.: And you’re going to teach them lock picking. Can you say what lock picking means to you?

W.H.: Well, I put it out in the description of the film school, which makes a point: I’m not going to teach you the technical side of filmmaking. You should rather be ready to forge your own shooting permit. If in some country like Peru, where I shot Fitzcarraldo, I was not allowed to move anywhere, because it was a military dictatorship at the time, and I came up with a four-page, wonderfully, elaborately written shooting permit, even signed by the president of the republic.

J.W.: Did that do you much good in the jungle?

W.H.: It did me very good in the jungle. The colonel who had actually ordered a soldier to open fire at our ship because we wouldn’t’ stop, he saw this and saluted and said, “Pass.” But don’t ask me who wrote the signature of the president. Just take a look at me and take a guess. So it was all forgery. And you should be ready to do things like that. When there’s a military dictatorship not allowing you to shoot, take things into your own hands.

J.W.: I’ve just been reading your new book, Conquest of the Useless, which is your diary from the making of Fitzcarraldo. Why do you keep coming back to the incredible difficulty of making that film? You’ve had difficulties, perhaps not on that scale, but tremendous difficulties, in many of the other films you’ve made.

W.H.: Well, I ignored the text, I couldn’t read it for a long, long time. So 25 years later, I was finally able to even read it and decipher it. I published it because I thought that was the element that was stronger than everything else I have made in my life. It probably will outlive my films, all of them, and it has more direct substance. It’s probably the piece of work I will be remembered for.

J.W.: Fitzcarraldo?

W.H.: No, Conquest of the Useless, the book. I’m probably a better writer than filmmaker.

J.W.: Have you kept diaries on other films, is there a body of writing you haven’t published.

W.H.: No, no. In a way, in all the pressure of doing Fitzcarraldo, it was my last resort. In a way, language was my last resort. Not religion, not music, not friendships that would support me, language.

J.W.: It’s amazing that you were able to sit down and write with all that was going on. Is it all authentic? I realize that’s an accountant’s question …

W.H.: No, it’s authentic. It just brought me back to myself, brought me back into focus. So that was the value of just doing it, every day.

J.W.: I have to ask you about the animals in these two films. In My Son, My Son the flamingos and the ostriches, and in Bad Lieutenant the lizards, the alligators, the snakes, the iguanas.

W.H.: I love to cast animals in important cameo roles in my films. And for example, in Stroszek, the dancing chicken is an image that will never leave you. If you have ever seen that film, it sticks to you until the rest of your days. It’s strange because in Bad Lieutenant, it was not written in the screenplay that there would be these animals, I just put them in en passant, while I was working, and everybody who has seen the film mentions it. Yeah they are wonderful, they are crazed, they are completely, in Bad Lieutenant, completely demented. The flamingos and the ostriches in My Son, My Son are very mysterious; you don’t have an answer, and yet they are very present, and they keep bothering you, and I don’t’ know exactly why is it. I just love it, to do that kind of thing.

J.W.: Your malignant view of nature, your anti-romantic view of nature, always seems to creep in, in some way.

W.H.: Somehow, yes, worldview always creeps into a movie.

J.W.: Do you think it’s fair to say that you have a romantic approach to character?

W.H.: No, no, I am a storyteller, and I’m not a romantic storyteller. Watch my last two films and you can tell easily that there’s not a romantic attitude about the characters at all.

J.W.: I don’t mean romantic in the Hollywood sense. I mean romantic in your concern with the soul under pressure.

W.H.: I wouldn’t call it romantic, but of course I care about the inner structure of a human being, his soul. That’s what filmmaking and writing is always about.

Interview lightly edited and condensed by Jacob Weisberg.

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