Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Werner Herzog never looks at himself in the mirror, but he can catch a trout with his bare hands

Werner Herzog never looks at himself in the mirror, but he can catch a trout with his bare hands

Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images, Graphic: Karl Gustafson

Hearing a voice on the other end of the phone say, “This is Werner Herzog,” is a surreal—and, frankly, rather intimidating—experience. It’s true that Herzog has leaned into his status as not only one of the premier filmmakers of his generation, but also as a stone-faced existentialist meme factory, agreeing to supplement his directorial outings with amusingly off-brand acting roles like his voice work on The Simpsons and Rick And Morty and his villainous turn in the upcoming Star Wars live-action series The Mandalorian. But that doesn’t make it any easier to ask a man who’s made a career of profound contemplation about what kind of fast food he likes, or what band he would join if he had the chance. (He doesn’t really listen to music, it turns out.) But Herzog gamely tolerated our 11 Questions during the press tour for his new documentary, Meeting Gorbachev, revealing that while he’s not especially plugged in to current pop culture, he has given thought to what skills he would bring to a post-apocalyptic society.

1. What’s your favorite fast-food menu item?

The A.V. Club: Do you eat fast food?

Werner Herzog: Sometimes, yes. french fries.

AVC: Is there one place you prefer them from?

WH: Anyone that does decent french fries.

AVC: What makes a decent french fry, in your opinion?

WH: Well, everybody knows they have to look good, they have to be enticing, they have to be tasty and crisp, and they have to be as bad to your health as it gets.

2. If you could re-live an event or moment in your own life, what would it be?

WH: Hm. I wouldn’t know, because I’m plowing through life without ever looking back.

AVC: Never?

WH: No, I wouldn’t like to relive any of my moments in my life. We are drawing a blank here.

AVC: Why not?

WH: Because I’m not living in the past, or looking at my past, or looking at myself. I don’t even know the color of my eyes because I do not look at myself in the mirror.

AVC: Really?

WH: Well, I do when I shave, but I do not look into my eyes.

3. Who’s your favorite fictional villain?

WH: I think in Batman, what’s the name of the villain there? You’ll have to help me.

AVC: What’s their schtick?

WH: No, but what is the name of the villain in Batman?

AVC: Well, there are a few.

WH: There is one who is the clown—

AVC: Oh! The Joker.

WH: The Joker, yes. The Joker was played—what was his name, who died very young?

AVC: Heath Ledger.

WH: Heath Ledger, yes. Heath Ledger as The Joker, that’s my answer.

AVC: What appeals to you about that?

WH: Because he’s a real quintessential villain. Nobody does it better, except maybe me as the villain in Jack Reacher. I had to be frightening, and I did my best. Heath Ledger as The Joker, that is a wonderful one.

4. What’s a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary?

AVC: I don’t know if you’ll have an answer for this one, but we’ll try: is there a line from film or television that you’ve incorporated into your personal vocabulary? That you like to quote, or something like that?

WH: No, not really.

AVC: Yeah, I kind of wondered about this one.

5. Who would play you in the movie of your life?

WH: It should not be played by anyone as long as I have control of it. I would never permit to have a film made about me.

AVC: For the same reason that you would not relive an earlier event in your life?

WH: It certainly will be an embarrassment for anyone: those who make the film, and those who watch the film. That can be prevented as long as I’m alive—when I’m dead eventually, I should try to give instructions clear enough that nobody should do it. You cannot prevent it. Some idiot will do it, but don’t watch it.

6. What’s a movie that you’ll always stop and watch if you’re flipping channels?

WH: No, but when I’m in a hotel room, I will eventually try to watch news from unlikely sources like Al Jazeera, or Japanese television, whatever. If there’s a good soccer match, I would watch a soccer match. I would watch Wrestlemania or something like that.

AVC: Is it a hinderance to you if you don’t speak the language when watching the news?

WH: It doesn’t matter. No, sometimes it’s fine to watch South Korean TV news in the Korean language. Al Jazeera, for example, has a very good news program. It’s real news, and in English language. It’s much more informative than the BBC, for example, or any of the news in the United States.

7. What possession can you not get rid of?

WH: There is a leather rucksack from [English travel writer] Bruce Chatwin, who gave it to me when he died. It is a major item in my film Nomad. Its secondary title is In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. I made three films in the last 12 months, and all three films are being released now within days. Today is Meeting Gorbachev, which has a theatrical release in a few days. At Tribeca, in only three days, I’m showing the Bruce Chatwin film. A few days later, I have a feature film that I shot in Japan (that) is also having its world premiere. I can’t even attend my own world premiere for Bruce Chatwin.

But his rucksack plays a major part in one chapter in the film. Also, we’re traveling on foot a lot. He has traveled thousands of kilometers with his rucksack, and I carry it for him now. It’s of deep significance for me. It’s not that I can’t get rid of it. I do not want to get rid of it. It has too much meaning.

AVC: Are you the type of person who likes to be busy at all times?

WH: I think no. I’m a lazy bum like everyone else. Even though I have made three films in the last 12 months, including a feature film, I am not a workaholic. My shooting days are short, my writing of a screenplay doesn’t exceed a week. Everything goes pretty fast. I’m not hectic at all.

8. What specific skill would you bring to a post-apocalyptic society?

AVC: Let’s say society collapses and you couldn’t make films anymore. What skill would you bring?

WH: You have to know how to make fire without matches.

AVC: You’re pretty good at that, I assume?

WH: Yes, I can do that. Second, you have to be able to catch a trout with your bare hands, which I can do. Third, you have to be able to milk a cow with your bare hands.

AVC: How many times have you caught a trout with your bare hands? Is it a common occurrence?

WH: It’s fairly easy to catch a trout with your hands when they’re in a creek. They take refuge under a rock or under an overhanging embankment, and they’re holding still in there. You have to understand how the trout is thinking.

9. Who is the most underrated person in your industry right now?

WH: Buster Keaton.

AVC: You mean his legacy isn’t as strong as it should be?

WH: Yes. I think he should be on Mount Rushmore in his silence, looking out over the landscape. There should be another silent one next to the American presidents on Mount Rushmore: It should be Muhammad Ali, who was forced into silence by illness.

AVC: Yeah.

WH: So let’s wait until somebody chisels their faces. Buster Keaton more than anyone else.

10. If you could be in any band, past or present, which one would it be?

WH: I’ve never been into bands. I know very little about them.

AVC: Is there any artistic group that you would’ve liked to have been part of? Any movements, anything like that?

WH: No, no, for god’s sake.

11. What would you do during The Purge?

AVC: Have you ever heard of the film The Purge? Are you familiar with this?

WH: No. I do not watch movies much. I read, I do not watch movies.

AVC: Okay, well the premise of these films is that there’s one night where all crime is legal, and you can do anything illegal and not be punished for it. If this were real life, what would you do on that night?

WH: I do this all my life. As a filmmaker, you have to have enough solid criminal energy and then you will be a filmmaker.

AVC: So it’s nothing new to you.

WH: Nothing new.

AVC: Fair enough.

Bonus 12th question from Griffin Newman: “Is there one work of art that you would remove from history if you could? Why or why not?

WH: I would never do that, even if this piece of art is very controversial. Let it be out there for judgment. I am against burning of books, for example. It has had catastrophic repercussions. You just do not do it. Iconically, we’ve made one of the huge mistakes of history. We shouldn’t go into that.

AVC: The last part of this interview—and thank you for sitting with me through all of this—is to pose a question for the next person. Do you have a question you’d like to pose, not knowing who it is?

WH: Yes: Do you know how to open safety locks? Illegally, of course. Do you know how to forge a document, let’s say a shooting permit, in a country that has a military dictatorship?

AVC: I’d be willing to bet that most people would say no.

WH: They better get busy and learn how to open a safety lock with a set of surgical tools.

AVC: That’s one of the things you teach in your guerrilla filmmaking workshops, isn’t it?

WH: That’s the only thing I teach. The rest is conversations, and listening to the visions and obstacles and fears of young filmmakers.