Like David Lynch and Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog has made many films that could easily be dismissed as stunts if they didn't double so effectively as art. After a youth spent taking epic walks and working extremely odd jobs in Europe, the U.S., and Mexico, Herzog nearly came into violent conflict with the Greek government over his first feature, the 1968 war drama Signs Of Life. He created another scandal with the violent 1971 allegory Even Dwarfs Started Small. Herzog seems to thrive on both the challenges of such projects and the scandal they create, and he found both challenge and scandal with 1972's Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, a masterful, purportedly fact-based examination of imperialism and madness. Aguirre was also his first of five collaborations with his childhood acquaintance Klaus Kinski, who became Herzog's definitive leading man (and bête noire, as Herzog details in his 1999 tribute/excoriation My Best Fiend). Tales of visionary excess surround Herzog: For The Mystery Of Kasper Hauser and Stroszek, he collaborated with Bruno S., a child-abuse survivor and former mental patient who sometimes could only be cajoled into performing after Herzog allowed him to spend hours screaming. For Heart Of Glass, the story of a small village that loses its sole source of income, Herzog hypnotized the cast. Documentarian Les Blank captured two of Herzog's most memorable moments in a pair of documentaries: In the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog makes good on a bet with Errol Morris by literally eating a shoe, while Burden Of Dreams is a feature-length documentary on the making of Herzog's 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, in which Kinski played a 19th-century dreamer whose attempt to bring opera to South America requires hauling a boat over a mountain. Typical of his style, Herzog accomplished this by hauling a boat over a mountain himself, with pulleys and a cast of hundreds taking the place of special effects. After working with Kinski once more on the little-seen Cobra Verde, Herzog began to concentrate on non-fiction films, though he despises the term "documentary," as his Minnesota Declaration manifesto (available on his web site, wernerherzog.com) attests. His most recent work includes Wheel Of Time, a documentary about Buddhism, and Invincible, a return to narrative filmmaking that's being released on DVD. Audiences have been split by the audacity of Herzog's central dare: casting real-life Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola as the historical strongman Zishe Breitbart. While no one disputes Ahola's ability to lift 900 pounds, some have found his performance refreshingly unpracticed, others off-puttingly amateurish. In other words, Invincible is a film only Herzog could make. From his California home, the director recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about documentaries, cinéma vérité, "ecstatic truth," and what he learned from Dr. Fu Manchu.
The Onion: Invincible was your first… I know you don't like the term "documentary," but it was your first narrative film in almost a decade. Why make this film now?
Werner Herzog: Well, I wouldn't make a distinction like you do. Because my what you call "documentaries" were largely scripted, rehearsed, and repeated, and have a lot of fantasy and concoction in them, like Little Dieter Needs To Fly [Herzog's 1997 film about the adventures of airman Dieter Dengler]. For me, the distinction between documentaries and feature films is not so clear. I have not returned, because I have not been away.
O: Putting that distinction aside, why make this film when you did?
WH: Well, as a German, you have to confront the German past at some time in your life. I simply didn't have a real good story, and I stumbled across this story of the Jewish strongman though a chain of coincidences. Whether it's coincidence, I don't know, but the descendent of the strongman approached me with a lot of material that was very insightful into the time. I found it an incredible story, and immediately decided to make a film.
O: This is really only the second time you've dealt with German fascism directly [after Signs Of Life]. Is it something you feel is easier to address indirectly through the megalomaniacal characters of your other films?
WH: Not really. I think… I know what you mean. [Laughs.] But it doesn't really address the question of fascism when you look at Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, for example. It really doesn't have to do with fascism. Some reviewers have read that into it. Of course, they have the privilege to read whatever their background is into the film–that's the beauty of movies–but I don't see it so clearly.
O: Of course, that would overlook that it could just as easily be about imperialism, which is what it seems to be on the surface.
WH: Or it could just be an adventure film. You name it. Whatever.
O: Did you know immediately for Invincible that you had to cast a real strongman in the lead role?
WH: Yes. Because when you look around among the actors who have muscles–like, let's say Sylvester Stallone or whoever–you have a sense that they are not really strong. It's all somehow pumped-up, steroids type of muscles. The real strongmen, the genuinely strongest of the strong, look different physically. It had to be a real strongman because there would have been a credibility gap instantly, from the first scene on, when you see the strongman in the circus. If he wasn't really strong, audiences would not believe it. I think it's as simple as that. Jouko Ahola, at the time we shot the film, was the incumbent Strongest Man In The World.
O: Is that how you found him?
WH: Yes, I checked strongman contests. Of course, many of them look very gross. They are monstrous and not very pleasant to look at. And there was one man who stuck out, and that was Jouko Ahola, a very sweet, kind, gentle young kid. I immediately had the feeling he would make a great actor, and it worked out very well.
O: You chose him for his qualities of innocence and…
WH: And also something else. I think women love him instantly. Women have a very good sense for seeing instantly what constitutes a good man. Not physically. The physical strength is only a small side of it, but he's such a good young boy, this Jouko, and he is so in private, and it somehow translates on the screen. Women sense it instantly.
O: Do you find those qualities are vanishing among film actors?
WH: They are. And that's why women are so desperate to find a good, kind man. I think it's hard for them these days. It doesn't speak very well of men when I say that. There are always good men around, but apparently these are hard times for women to find a good, kind, strong-in-character man for their lives.
O: Your work often deals with innocent figures–like the hero of Invincible–struggling with corrupt figures, usually authority figures. Do your own experiences support this view of the world?
WH: Not really, no. How can I say… That's my profession. I'm a storyteller, and I can sense immediately when there's a great story, and in this case, I did not invent the story. It's only partially invented. It's based upon an authentic story that happened in the '20s and '30s.
O: How much do you script your movies?
WH: Well, I would say Invincible is pretty much all scripted. It always surprises people that my "documentaries" are also pretty much scripted. They only look like documentaries.
O: Related to that, you've made something called The Minnesota Declaration. What prompted that?
WH: It's probably from many years of being angered by those who claim to do something truthful. Cinéma vérité is my particular enemy in this case. I was always fascinated by the question–and I think it's ultimately one of the bottom lines of cinema–"What constitutes fact and what constitutes truth?" I've always searched for deep truth in images in cinema, and Invincible is no exception. It's one of those films where the factual truth doesn't count that much. There's a deeper, inner truth that you find in poetry, for example. In The Minnesota Declaration, I call it the "ecstatic truth." I've been after that all my working life.
O: But the phrase is recent, right?
WH: It came upon me pretty recently, yes. Strangely enough, the term "ecstatic truth" has caught on. Other people are using it now. I wouldn't interpret it. You have to figure out yourself… But it's quite clear what I mean when you look at my films, and when you read the declaration, which is actually a very funny little piece of text, only half a page. It doesn't sound like one of those stern manifestos. It's a lot of fun. But beyond what makes it fun to read, there is something deeper in it, something that has engaged my mind since my earliest featurettes.
O: Has there been a reaction to it?
WH: Oh, sure, there's lots of battles that I'm doing all the time over it. But that's fine. That's part of the joy of it.
O: You didn't see a film until you were 12, right?
WH: Well, 11. And it's not just that I did not see a film. I had no knowledge that cinema existed.
O: How did you come across it?
WH: Well, there was a traveling… I lived in a very remote Bavarian village. After the war, my mother had fled into the mountains because Munich was badly bombed. We barely escaped, and she fled into the remotest place in the Alps. So the world outside didn't occur there. We didn't know what a telephone was. We didn't know what cinema was. One day at school, a traveling projectionist arrived with a 16mm projector and showed some films, and that was the first time I learned that cinema even existed.
O: What was the film?
WH: It was two films. One was a film about Eskimos building an igloo, which was pretty lousy, because there was a ponderous commentary which tried to tell you that Eskimos live in igloos. And I could tell, because I had lived a lot in snow, that they'd done a lousy job. The other one, I remember very well, was a film of pygmies in Cameroon building a bridge across a jungle river. Which was kind of better. It didn't impress me much, I must confess. [Laughs.]
O: What was the first film that strongly influenced you?
WH: It was one of the dozens of Dr. Fu Manchu films. There was a whole series of very cheaply made Dr. Fu Manchu films, and I saw one with my friends, and there was a gun battle, and one of Dr. Fu Manchu's henchmen was shot from a rock. Five minutes later, there's yet another gun battle at a different location, and all of a sudden, I see a guy being shot from a rock, and it was exactly the same shot again. I recognized it because the guy did a very funny little kick in midair when he somersaulted down to his death. I knew they had tried to cheat us, and I told my friends. They hadn't seen it, and they had felt it was all true, because it was all done like a documentary. From that moment, I started to see films differently. How do you narrate? How do you edit? How do you create tension? How do you do a logical sequence of scenes to create a story? It opened my eyes completely, in particular because I was angered that my friends hadn't seen what I had seen.
O: Robert Altman has said that he learned the most from watching films he didn't like and learning what not to do. Have you had a similar experience?
WH: I've never learned from a good film, because it's always mysterious how they do it. I'm sitting in awe, and enchanted, and I feel wonderful, but I could never tell how, for God's sake, was that made. But I have always learned from the bad ones how not to do it. Dr. Fu Manchu taught me not to recycle the same shot and tell you it was a different situation.
O: You've referred to filmmaking as a destiny for you. When did you realize it was a destiny?
WH: About when I was 14, the same time I started to travel on foot and converted to be a Catholic, which was big drama in my family, as they were all militant atheists. It was a very intense time when things somehow were decided.
O: Do you see Catholicism as still informing your work?
WH: No, I don't think so. But maybe there's a very distant echo about religion, and understanding what spirituality is.
O: Between the time when you knew him as a kid and the point when you hired him for Aguirre, did you have any contact with Klaus Kinski?
WH: Well, I lived in the same apartment building with him for three months when I was 13, by a chain of coincidences. There's a wonderful account of it in a film that I made called My Best Fiend. I go back with a camera in tow to the apartment where I lived with Kinski, and I startle the new occupants of this apartment. I shouldn't tell too much, because it's such a wonderful thing. Kinski struck me immediately as being extraordinary, because in the first 48 hours that I stayed there, he laid waste to the bathroom that everybody used by smashing everything up systematically into smithereens. I knew what to expect when I decided to make films with him. Well, it turned out that he was much worse than what I had encountered as a child. And, of course, much better, as well.
O: When you made Stroszek, was there any particular reason you chose Wisconsin as your setting?
WH: Yes, because I love Wisconsin. I love that entire part of the country, and that includes Minnesota. That entire area, it's somehow about the best of America. Strangely enough, the best of the best always comes from there. And that means Bob Dylan. It means Hemingway. It means Marlon Brando. It means… you just name it. Anyone who is really good and important comes from there, with one exception: Some of the greatest writers come from the Deep South. The Deep South and up there is somehow the most fertile ground for the best who emerge in America. Why that is, I can't tell you.
O: If you had to choose the most difficult of the things you've done, which would it be? Pulling the boat over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo, painting thousands of white rats gray for Nosferatu, or eating your shoe?
WH: Oh, eating your shoe is nothing. Any idiot can do that. Cook it, and it's fine.
O: But you have to cook it first.
WH: You have to cook it first, and don't cook it in fat. I cooked it in duck fat, which made it shrink and become even tougher, so don't do that. Dyeing 11,000 rats from white into gray, that's not easy. You have to be very methodical. You have to arrange some sort of assembly line of certain events, like dipping and blow-drying. They suffer from pneumonia very quickly. That's okay. I think anyone who is not afraid of rats can do that. Pulling a ship over a mountain, I think even a child could do it. A pulley system, and give the child a rope which is 10 miles long, and the child has to move with the rope 10 miles and move the boat one inch.
O: That would probably be the most difficult, then?
WH: Not really. They all have their challenges. I leave the choice to you.
O: Apart from filmmaking, what is the most difficult job you've had?
WH: Raising children. Dealing with stupidity. Dealing with bureaucracy.
O: You've staged a number of operas over the last decade. Why do you think opera has so rarely been translated to film successfully?
WH: They bite each other like cat and dog. You can't marry cat and dog. Opera follows such different principles that it would never work out. Even very competent filmmakers have tried, and they've always come up with not very convincing results. The sense of timing is completely different in opera. Somebody asks a question, and five minutes later, their answer comes back three times over. The emotions are completely different. The structure of emotions is quite different from movie emotions. The sense of space is completely different. It would never work. But it's wonderful to work with music and just do opera.
O: How did you end up as one of the faces in hell in What Dreams May Come?
WH: Well, I've known [director] Vincent Ward for quite a time. He likes my work, and I ran into him and visited him on the set, and he said, "Werner, in 10 days we are shooting, and Robin Williams is going to step into your face." And I said, "That is wonderful. I will do it. I'll be ready." [Laughs.] It was a gesture of friendship.
O: When you decided to hypnotize the cast in Heart Of Glass, was that because you felt the piece needed it thematically, because you just wanted to try it, or something of both?
WH: It's not a circus gimmick. I think the story of Heart Of Glass is the story of a village community that lapses into collective insanity. Or like sleepwalkers, entranced, walking into unforeseen disaster. And I thought for a long time, how would I stylize everyone like a sleepwalker? Then it occurred to me, "Why shouldn't they act under real hypnosis?" The question was, number one, could you hypnotize someone so deeply that he or she would open their eyes without waking up? Yes, that is possible. Second, can two people under hypnosis communicate with each other? Can they do dialogue? Yes, that is also possible. So I decided to do it under hypnosis. I had an idiot of a hypnotist who was into all sorts of New Age stuff, and I dismissed him after two sessions. I had to do it alone.
O: In film, do you have any dream projects you haven't been able to make yet?
WH: Well, I've made almost 50 films. I've made pretty much everything I really wanted to make, with one or two exceptions where I have not managed yet. I think it's a good work ratio with what I have accomplished and what I couldn't accomplish. I'm not spending sleepless nights over one or two projects that I haven't been able to pull off yet.
O: One of your most famous quotes is, "We are surrounded by worn-out images, and we deserve new ones." Is there a problem with worn-out images, apart from their being worn out?
WH: I think so, yes. It's the same danger when you are not adapted to the world that surrounds you anymore. You will die out like dinosaurs. I think that dinosaurs had a similar problem. [Laughs.] We do not see the danger clearly enough that we develop images adequate to our state of civilization. When you watch TV, you know instantly that there's something wrong with the images. When you open a magazine and see the ads, you know there's something wrong with the images. And it's unhealthy and not good and outright dangerous, in my opinion.
O: Do you see that changing?
WH: Not on a large scale, but there are many good people out there who see that, and who are working against it, and who have started to create new images. There are people out there, don't worry. We shouldn't give up hope.
O: You "borrowed" a camera to make your first eight films. Did you ever return it?
WH: No, I did not, because… Well, when you take a camera, you cannot return it officially. And after making eight films with it, it kind of broke down. I had a Peruvian assistant at that time who was a young aspiring filmmaker, and he knew a guy who was able to fix cameras for very little money. And I said to him, "I have paid you, but I was not able to pay you very well, so in addition to the payment, I give you my camera. Have it repaired and do something good with it yourself." He shot quite a few films with the camera, so it had an afterlife. It was a camera which was actually meant to be given out to young aspiring filmmakers for almost no charge, and the institution that owned it never gave it away to anyone. I had the feeling there was a natural right to expropriate it.
O: So you liberated it?
WH: Not liberated. I brought it to its destiny.