Described by Janet Maslin, the New York Times critic, as the “consummate poet of doom,” Herzog is one of cinema’s most crusading directors. His personal quest has led him to explore subjects such as collective insanity (in Heart of Glass) and the rise of Nazism (Invincible) and taken him to the depths of the Peruvian jungle, (for films such as Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo) and the Sahara desert (for Fata Morgana).
As a consequence of this compulsive drive for authenticity, Herzog is one of the world’s most controversial film-makers, with a reputation that is perched precariously on a mountain of mythology, fabrications and sensational truth. He refers to these distortions of biography as his “doppelgangers”, media projections that roam the globe independently.
They include the story of how, during the making of Signs of Life (1968) on the Greek island of Kos, the 24-year-old is said to have fallen foul of the military and threatened to shoot and kill anyone who tried to halt filming. For Heart of Glass (1976), Herzog supposedly put the entire cast under hypnosis. For his documentary La Soufriere (1977), he took his film crew up the side of a volcano that was threatening to erupt. And during the shooting of Aguirre in the Peruvian jungle, he is reputed to have directed the late Klaus Kinski, his lead actor in five films, at gunpoint from behind the camera.
Herzog’s desire to become a film director seems to have formed, at about the age of 14, during a fervently religious period when he also briefly converted to Catholicism. Werner decided to enter a script-writing competition: He sat down and wrote the script in five days, three weeks later the phone rang. It was the jury saying he had won.”
By this time, Werner was travelling widely, sometimes on foot, to destinations such as Albania, Kos and North Africa. In 1962, using the money he earned working night shifts as an industrial welder, Herzog managed to make his first feature, Herakles, a documentary-style short, in which shots of body-builders are intercut with footage of a crash at the Le Mans 24-hour car race. He also made a never-released short called Spiel Im Sand and won the Carl Meyer award for the screenplay of Signs of Life. However, attempts to get anything more substantial off the ground ended in frustration: “I was still very young and my puberty was late,” says Herzog, “so I looked like a child when I had to meet film executives. It was really very humiliating.”
With a camera which he is reputed to have purloined from a Munich film school, he managed to make a short film entitled The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreutz, in which four youths defend a fortress against an invisible enemy. Then, in 1966, Herzog managed to raise the budget to make his first feature Signs of Life, the story of a recuperating soldier who is put in charge of a munitions dump on a Greek island, a plot loosely adapted from a novella by Achim von Arnim.
Shot on Kos, the film marked the beginning of Herzog’s legendary on-set difficulties, as the Greek military threatened to veto a vital scene, and Herzog in turn is said to have warned that he would shoot anyone who dared try: “I’m sure it has all been embellished by rumour,” he says. “The military would not have been so intimidated by a very young man who looked like a high-school kid.”
The film won a Silver Bear at the 1968 Berlin film festival for best first film and was hailed by the influential film critic Lotte Eisner as having “a romantic spirit inspired by German silents”.
The film also received a DM300,000 government film award which helped fund his next projects, including Fata Morgana, a trek through the Sahara in search of mirages, and a wildly offbeat feature, Even Dwarfs Started Small, the story of an anarchist uprising in a criminal institution for small people. This picture caused uproar when shown at the 1970 New York film festival, with Herzog accused of fascism for what was perceived as a satire on the 1968 student uprisings, and of exploiting his actors: “They were performing in some sort of a ‘tiny town’ amusement park,” he counters. “For the first time they got some real, decent work and enjoyed it tremendously.”
By now, Herzog was already feverishly immersed in his next project, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, the film that would eventually mark his international breakthrough. The script, which follows the 16th-century conquistador Lope de Aguirre’s mutinous and ultimately suicidal expedition down the Amazon River, called for a full-scale location shoot in the Peruvian jungle, complete with a fleet of rafts and a cast of 270 native Indians. Herzog decided to offer the lead role of the maniacal, malformed Aguirre to his old acquaintance Klaus Kinski: “Between three and four in the morning, the phone rang,” Herzog remembers. “It took me at least a couple of minutes before I realised that it was Kinski who was the source of this inarticulate screaming. And after an hour of this, it dawned on me that he found it the most fascinating screenplay and wanted to be Aguirre.”
By this time Kinski was a movie and theatre star, though he had also earned himself a reputation for being viciously difficult, having once almost smashed a co-star’s skull with a sword. Almost from the first day of shooting, the tantrums began: “Travelling all the way to the jungle is the worst kind of agony,” wrote Kinski, “penned up in old-fashioned trains, wrecks of trucks and cage-like buses, we eat and camp out like pigs.”
Herzog, who insisted that the actors live in huts and brave the Amazonian rapids, bore the brunt of Kinski’s ire: “I’m hoping that he’ll attack me. Then I’ll shove him into a side branch of the river, where the still waters teem with murderous piranhas, and I’ll watch them shred him.”
When Kinski threatened to leave, Herzog came close to fulfilling this wish: “I told him I would do him in if he left the set now,” says Herzog, “that I had a gun with nine bullets, eight of which I would use on him, leaving the final one for myself. He understood that it was not a joke.”
For the last 10 days of shooting, Herzog claims, Kinski was quite docile. However, the film was given a low merit classification by the German film board and struggled to get a release. Undaunted, Herzog proceeded to his next project, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, the true story of a young man who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828, unable to speak or walk. For the lead, Herzog chose Bruno S, a disturbed individual who had been brutalised as a child by his prostitute mother, losing the power of speech as a result, and had spent 23 of his 40-odd years in mental institution. When the film was released in 1974 it was hailed as a “stunning fable”, though Herzog was accused of exploitation, in particular for allowing Bruno to return afterwards to his squalid life.
By this time, however, Herzog’s reputation had begun to grow. Aguirre was belatedly picked up by arthouse cinemas in Paris, where it ran for two and a half years.Kaspar Hauser won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 1975 and had gained a cult following in America, particularly in LA. This led to backing from 20th Century-Fox for Nosferatu, a reinterpretation of FW Murau’s 1922 vampire classic that led Lotte Eisner to exclaim: “The film is not being remade, it is being reborn.” However, the substantial box office takings in the US can be put down less to the rejuvenation of the Germanic film tradition than to its wonderfully gothic indulgences and Kinski’s radiant intensity as the vampire.
Shot back to back with Nosferatu, with Kinski again in the title role, was the far more modest adaptation of Buchner’s stage play, Woyzeck. During this shooting a relationship developed between Herzog and his leading actor, Eva Mattes, which had perhaps originated when she played the female lead in Stroszek. When Mattes fell pregnant with Herzog’s second child, Hanna, it created enormous tensions with Martje, though she seems to have remained philosophical: “Men who are in any way outstanding as artists or politicians, or whatever, have a sexual appeal because of their power,” she says. “They always have affairs of that kind. I think it was good that he stood by her and he paid for the upkeep of the child. The children understand each other and are on a good footing and they are glad that they exist.” The marriage to Martje survived for another decade before ending in divorce in 1987.
The success of Nosferatu paved the way for what is arguably Herzog’s finest film, Fitzcarraldo. Shot once more in the Peruvian jungle, the movie has also been the source of the director’s most disfigured and destructive dÀppelgangers: Herzog the imperialist, who pays scant regard to the natives or their culture; Herzog the delusional romantic, who places the success of his film above all else; Herzog the dictatorial “Pharaoh”, as Pauline Kael put it, who “risked other people’s lives and put his co-workers through misery”.
The plot centres around an Irish rubber baron called Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who dreamed of bringing opera to the jungle and planned to fund it with a scheme that included hauling a 340-ton steamboat over a mountain, which Herzog intended to recreate in its full, budget-breaking actuality. The production appears to have been blighted from the beginning, as Herzog’s camp, appropriately named Pelicula O Muerte (Film or Death) was burned down by the indigenous Indians, because of some dispute. Herzog moved deeper into the jungle, but after completing 40% of the film, the lead male actor, the late Jason Robards, dropped out. The official reason was always amoebic dysentery, though Claudia Cardinale, who played the brothel-keeper Molly, says: “He was very fragile, and, in fact, after a little time he just went out of his mind. One day, he went up to the top of a tree and he didn’t want to come down.”
When shooting recommenced, the difficulties continued, as a canoe capsized, drowning one of the Indians, and a plane crashed, causing serious injuries. Finally, Kinski threw such Herculean tantrums that one of the Indian chiefs offered to have him killed: “Once again our lives are constantly put at risk,” Kinski ranted, “because of Herzog’s total ignorance, narrow-mindedness, arrogance and inconsideration.”
After four years, in 1982, the film was finally released, though its reception was tinged by the controversy. Herzog was to work with Kinski only once more, on Cobra Verde in 1986, but by the end of shooting the actor seemed a spent force: “He burned away like a comet,” says Herzog. “Afterwards he was ashes.” By the time of Kinski’s death in 1991 Herzog had vowed never to work with him again, though now his opinion has mellowed: “He was like a tornado,” he says. “When you watch a tornado laying waste to a village you don’t ask what kind of problem does the tornado have? It is a force of nature. It is the village that has the problem.”
The past decade has seen Herzog move away from features and towards opera productions and documentary films such as Lessons of Darkness, an apocalyptic vision of hell gleaned from the burning oilfields of Kuwait in the wake of the Gulf war, and Little Dieter Needs to fly, about a fighter pilot captured in Laos. However, it would appear that his new film, Invincible, about a Jewish strong man co-opted into a Nazi vaudeville act, does signal a return, with plans currently in the pipeline to remake Little Dieter as a full-blown feature.
But no matter which path Herzog chooses, it is certain that he will be a contentious yet welcome presence in European cinema: “I don’t have an awareness of myself or my work beyond my physical existence,” he concludes. “I am a hard-working man and that’s that. I’ve never had an affinity with romantic culture. There is no romanticism in me. Posterity can kiss my ass.”