Werner Herzog: “Cinema is still the mother of all battles”

When it seemed that all places in the world had been recorded by Werner Herzog’s camera, from the Amazon to Antarctica and from North Korea to Iceland, the indefatigable traveling filmmaker returns to show the footprints of outer space on the planet. Those immemorial marks are the remnants of meteorites and the craters caused by their impacts on Earth. For the author of Fitzcacarraldo (1982), the effects of celestial bodies in our world tell us much more about ourselves than we believe. That is one of his proposals in the documentary Fireball: Visitors from darker worlds (2020), which premiered this Friday on the Apple TV + streaming service.

On the same day, Werner Herzog (1942) was the protagonist of the talk via Zoom “I’m going where my stories are”, which took place within the framework of the 15th Arica Nativa Film Festival, a multicultural meeting that ends today, whose activities can be followed for free and online on the web portal Aricanativa.cl. Moderated by producer Ariel León, who collaborated with the filmmaker in 2018 when he was filming part of his film in Chilean Patagonia Nomad: In the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2020), the master class once again exposed to our audiences the voice, energy and characteristic face of the author of Grizzly man (2005).

It should be remembered that at the end of 2018, the German director was invited to the program La Ciudad y las Palabras at UC. One day before the talk on Friday, also from his home in Los Angeles (United States), the director of Nosferatu (1979) spoke with Culto via Skype. He was coming off a seven-hour round of global interviews for his tape FireballBut his eloquence and enthusiasm had no trace of weariness.

-How did your interest in meteorites arise?

Well, just look at some of the images that the cameras have captured to be interested. Some of these heavenly cars contain compounds like amino acids and sugar. That is, they could transport life forms. They have also been important in creating entire belief systems and cultures. For example, the Muslim prayer place known as Kaaba, in Mecca (Saudi Arabia), contains within it a figure known as “black stone”, which in all probability is a meteorite. This object was already worshiped long before Islam appeared. On the other hand, there are cultures that considered that meteorites were the vehicle in which the dead went to the other world. It is, in short, a fantastic subject to make a movie.

– Do you think that ancient cultures gave a wiser interpretation to these phenomena than that of some scientists?

No. Of course advances in science have deciphered far more than ancient beliefs. However, it is curious to note that the Greeks and Romans did believe that meteorites came from space, while many centuries later some Enlightenment thinkers considered it an impossible phenomenon to generate outside of Earth. Obviously, the ancients had it clearer.

-In Fireball you went back to working with the British volcanologist Clive Openheimer, who had already been with you on your documentary To hell (2016) and in Encounters at the end of the world (2009). Why?

Because he is more than a scientist. He is, perfectly, the co-director of Fireball. He has a great sensitivity for finding characters, something that is essential in both fiction and documentaries. He has done this for these films with interviewees such as Jesuit priests in the Vatican, with tribes in Western Australia or with a jazz player who finds micrometeorites on the roofs of a stadium in Norway.

-Must it be difficult to find scientists who connect with the audience?

I must admit that I am good at casting: I have the ability to find the right leads. I think that was the case with Klaus Kinski as a Spanish conquistador in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), but also with Nicolas Cage as a drug addict detective in A corrupt cop (2009). In non-fiction it is the same. You have to find the human face of what you want to tell and thus connect with the public. It also happened to me with Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly man (2005). Documentary films are not pedagogy and they are not didactic. We are not at school. We are talking about real people, about human beings.

British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and filmmaker Werner Herzog (right) in a scene from the documentary Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds.

-It is famous for their distrust of educational systems, both in basic and university training …

Basically, I always let myself be carried away by great curiosity, in the sense of preserving the capacity for surprise and fascination with the new. It’s a bit of the same engine that drives scientists. I think that is in all my films, until the last one. You don’t have to go to college to make movies. I have said it several times and maybe I am living proof of it.

-How about releasing a movie where landscapes and large shots are the norm, but on a small screen?

Let’s see the good side of things. I don’t like the culture and the habit of complaining too much. If we are honest, for at least six years that streaming has been gaining a lot of ground. Releasing a film in this way gives the possibility that it is not interrupted every nine minutes by commercial runs as happens with documentaries on open television. On the other hand, streaming gives the possibility of making extensive works and epic ambitions in the sense that they can be divided into several chapters of an hour or more in length. It is the only way to make an adaptation of a novel like War and peace. And, also, you get them to see you in the United States, India, Chile, Botswana or Mexico at the same time. The downside of all this is that for me the cinema continues to be the mother of all battles and the collective experience of the theater remains unique. But finally, I think the industry has entered a new phase, with other distribution systems. It never ceases to amaze me how the internet popularized my films: almost all of them are there. It keeps drawing my attention that 15-year-old boys write to me about The enigma of Gaspar Hauser (1974), a movie I made when his parents were probably born.

-In Chile there was a generation that grew up watching your films in the cinema arts of the 80s and 90s.

Sure, but surely in the year 2000 there were no films of mine in theaters, because everyone was offering the new franchise of Star Wars or something similar. It took another 15 years for my films to become accessible again, but by other means.

-About Star Wars, you were the villain in The Mandalorian, the popular Disney Plus series. Apparently, that production has not so much to do with his cinema …

It has to do with my cinema, since its director, Jon Favreau, who otherwise created the entire history of The Mandalorian, is a follower of my movies. When he gave me the role of The Client, he told me that he wanted to show everyone the face of the creator of those films. That’s why I appear without a helmet or special effects, unlike other characters. For the rest, I did not do casting or anything like that. This was an invitation and it was only four days of professional work in my life. For this reason, everything is a bit unbalanced when talking about this series: it is just four days of work against 50 years of career, more than 70 films, several books, opera performances and performances in other films.

-Where does all that energy come from, considering that in the last two years you made three documentaries and a fiction film?

First of all, the projects I work on let go of being surrounded by a special aura of vehemence and inner energy that I must manage well. Second, I never film much. I am not a worker. Some first-time filmmakers come to me and say they have 650 hours of shooting and I tell them that doesn’t make much sense. For example, I barely shot 320 minutes for my movie Family Romance LLC (2019), which lasted an hour and a half and we premiered last year in the official selection of the Cannes Festival. I hardly did re-takes. I mean it’s all about conciseness and debugging. Not to waste time. That’s why I usually arrive at the shootings with a very precise script. And on budgets: with a cell phone I can make a film for the cinema of the same quality as the one I would achieve with the low-priced 4K resolution camera that I bought years ago.

Werner Herzog was the main antagonist in the first season of The Mandalorian series.

-Do you always have that clarity at work?

Yes, I am always sure of what I am doing. And technology helps me. Digital methods currently allow you to make a montage almost at the same speed as your thought. You are a traveling filmmaker.

-Are you not frustrated at not being able to travel to different locations in the world due to the pandemic?

No. At this time you have to be cautious. You have to be careful. It makes no sense to me wanting to go filming in a remote place with hundreds of extras. It is nonsense. It doesn’t matter either. I’ve been writing quite a bit lately. This Sunday I finished a book. It’s prose, in the style of what I did in From walking on ice (1978) o Conquest of the useless (2009). And I also have four or five more or less finished scripts of fiction films. It could shoot tomorrow, maybe, if there was no coronavirus. I’m not defeated yet (laughs).

-You live between the United States and Germany. Do you think that American individualism has influenced when it comes to being the country most affected by the pandemic?

I think that American culture is largely based on the tradition of the so-called frontier man, with an ax in his soul and a rifle in his hand. Of course that type of personality is quite the opposite of that of a scientist. But for me it’s okay. I also do not like to talk so much about those topics. I live and have been happily married here for about 20 years.

But the recent election and polarization are a difficult issue to avoid.

Let’s say that polarizing climate is likely to continue for quite a while longer. I think it didn’t start entirely with Donald Trump, but rather that it came from long before. To be honest, it probably goes back to the 1960s. But even so, I believe that the United States has the ability to emerge from every crisis it has faced. Right now he is in the middle of one, but I think it will go well and that indicates the result of the last elections. I would like to have voted, but I am a German citizen. I’m just a guest in this country and I live here, more than anything, because of my wife.

-The cinema also seems to be in crisis. What is your feeling?

I believe that, in the long run, theaters will continue with us. Again I say that it is the mother of all battles. They already said once that no one else would return to concerts when the radio appeared or when the internet arrived, but still many continued to go to listen to Beethoven, until now. The same will happen with the rooms. They will surely be different, with less audience, but they will continue. The point is that it cannot be ignored that the entire cultural and technological landscape is changing and that the ways in which a boy can watch a movie at home are too many.

-Would you rather they see Fitzcarraldo O Aguirre, the wrath of God on a cell phone or computer?

No. That is a misinterpretation. Obviously, I prefer to be seen in a movie theater. However, if Aguirre It will not be seen in a cinema in Chile for the next 120 years, I prefer that they see it at home, on a good plasma screen, a decent sound system, accompanied by friends, perhaps around a good meal and drinking beer.

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