Close to the edge
German filmmaker Werner Herzog talks about his two daring new films
Last Updated: Thursday, November 19, 2009 | 12:47 PM ET
Martin Morrow, CBC News
This piece originally ran during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.
The great German director Werner Herzog is on a roll. He’s brought two different yet complementary movies to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and both have got moviegoers talking. One is the big-budget crime thriller Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage as a wildly strung-out homicide cop who pops Vicodin, snorts coke and has sex with his suspects — that is, when he isn’t seeing iguanas that sing Engelbert Humperdinck ballads or ghosts that break-dance.
'People sometimes deduce, because I make a film about a madman, that he who made the film must be insane himself.'— Werner Herzog
The other film is smaller, darker and — believe it or not — weirder. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? follows the mounting insanity of a young actor (Michael Shannon) in a Greek tragedy, who has stabbed his mother to death with a sword. With an oppressive, verge-of-hysteria atmosphere (and more hallucinations), it’s a reminder that the auteur who made Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo hasn’t lost his touch.
Herzog sat down with CBCNews.ca for an interview. Jovial despite some massive jet lag — in the space of a fortnight, he’s been to India and the Telluride and Venice festivals — he talked about the true crime that inspired My Son…, his reputation for making movies about madmen and his technique for shooting lizards.
Q: You’ve called My Son, My Son a horror movie without the blood and chainsaws. I understand it’s based on a real case from 30 years ago?
A: Yes, it’s based on a bizarre murder case, which happened around the staging of an ancient Greek tragedy, where the leading character has to murder his mother, who in turn has murdered his father: The Oresteia. Of course, it was a very fascinating, very dark, very scary sort of story, but the film never comes at you with a bloody axe and scares you. It’s like an anonymous fear creeping up on you.
Q: I understand you had spoken with the real murderer on which this film is based.
A: Yes. The real murderer was declared unfit to stand trial for reasons of insanity. He was locked away in a maximum-security mental institution for eight and a half years, and then released as being sane. The reason why he was declared sane was that he didn’t pose a threat to society in general, because his crime was so much focused against his own mother. I met the man and he was not really sane yet. He still looked kind of dangerous. I decided immediately I would not maintain this contact anymore. He actually died [shortly afterwards].
Q: You’ve had a history of making films about madmen and men with obsessions, from Aguirre right up to your documentary Grizzly Man. Is this a legitimate obsession of your own?
A: No, I have no obsessions. I’m a professional man, I’m a storyteller. People sometimes deduce, because I make a film about a madman, that he who made the film must be insane himself. No, I can affirm and maintain with great ease that I’m probably the only clinically sane person in Toronto at the moment. [Laughs.] But of course, characters at the edge have sometimes fascinated me in my storytelling.
Q: That certainly describes Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant. I have to say, it’s quite a surprising film. For the first while, I thought we were watching a standard crime thriller, but at the point when the iguanas start singing, you realize you’re in the world of Werner Herzog.
A: [Laughing] Of course, these scenes like the dancing soul and the iguanas were not in the screenplay. I somehow brought them up. I think it’s part of my profession. You have to bring life onto a set, you have to be imaginative, you have to go beyond the screenplays quite often to bring some fascination into it. And I knew the audience would understand it. Everybody who’s seen the film talks about it now and I sensed there was something big [there].
I even filmed the iguanas myself. With a tiny little lens and a fibre-optic cable. I had to move only millimetres away from their skin and then move to their eyes, and they would stare at the lens in a totally perplexed way. I knew there would be something coming across to an audience. Something demented. [Laughs.]
A: No, there’s no controversy. There was some sort of a hint of a controversy before anyone had seen my film. Now everybody knows the two films have nothing to do with each other. It’s only that one of the producers owned the rights to the title and they had hoped to start some sort of a franchise. I was never happy with the title, and fought against it from the first moment, because I knew it would create misunderstandings.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: Oh, let’s not talk about it. There’re five or six films pushing at me. They come like burglars in the night. [Laughs.]
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Nov. 20 .
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.