'I had to invent cinema': Werner Herzog on how growing up in poverty made him the filmmaker he is

Herzog is considered one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time. So what are his secrets?

Herzog is considered one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time. So what are his secrets?

Werner Herzog on the set of his 2011 documentary Into the Abyss. (IFC Films)

When Werner Herzog was growing up in rural Bavaria in the 1940s, there were no movies — at least not in his world.

His family had no running water, no flushing toilet, and no telephone; it wasn't until he was 17 that he made his first phone call.

He didn't even know that films existed until he was 11, when a traveling projectionist passed through his family's remote mountain village.

WATCH | Werner Herzog's full interview with q host Tom Power:

"Later when we moved to Munich because I had to go to high school I saw films, but they were American B pictures or C pictures," says Herzog in an interview with q host Tom Power.

"And fairly soon I had the feeling I would do it better. I had to invent cinema in a way," he says. "Today I still feel like an inventor of cinema."

'It was natural'

Herzog is certainly an inventor of his own brand of cinema. Often cited as one of the top directors of all time, Herzog has created riveting features, shorts and especially documentaries that delve deeply into the psyches of their central characters, from an off-kilter grizzly bear enthusiast (Grizzly Man) to murderers on death row (Into the Abyss), and from Antarctic dwellers (Encounters at the End of the World) to cave scientists and historians (Cave of Forgotten Dreams).

For him, it was something that came naturally from the very first moment he picked up a camera.

"I felt comfortable with it right away," he says. "There was nothing special about it. It was natural."

Early on, Herzog, who never went to film school or interned at a film studio, also learned how to self-produce films on a lean budget — among them his 1972 breakout feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

"It's a big film, when you look at it on a big screen. For Hollywood, it's a $100 million film. And I had a grand total budget of $360,000. So that's no money at all, and how do you make a film with a crew of eight, and costumes and cannons and muskets?" he says.

"You have to be in defiance of what the production means are, and you have make the best out of it," he says.

"So that's what I learned early on, that money's not handed over to you by production companies easily. So I produced it myself."

'Like burglars in the middle of the night"

The documentaries are often narrated by Herzog himself, his voice tinged with his unmistakable German accent — his delivery is so distinct that he regularly gets spoofed online — as he asks existential questions about humanity, nature, and where the two intersect.

And the subjects of his films, he says, aren't carefully chosen. "They come to me mostly uninvited. I do not plan a career," he says. "They come at me like burglars in the middle of the night."

He also creates documentaries that he calls "feature films in disguise."

"I stylize. I invent. I rehearse. I cast. They're all methodologies of feature films. And I'm not a fly on the wall like some of the documentary filmmakers would postulate insipidly," argues Herzog.

"I am a creator. I keep telling them, 'You are creators. You're not a fly on the wall. You create a film.'"

'Something deeply human'

Herzog believes that 95 per cent of documentaries are "a bastard child of journalism," and that documentaries should be divorced from journalistic constraints.

For example, in his 2011 documentary Into The Abyss, Herzog delves into the stories of two men convicted of a triple homicide in Texas. The film includes some of the essential facts of the case, but it doesn't focus on the innocence or guilt of the inmates, or make explicit comment on the documentary.

"I told them in writing before, and that's part of the protocol: 'This film is not meant to establish your innocence or your guilt. I'm not in this business.' In other words, I'm interested in something else, in something deeply human," he says.

"Yes, the crimes are monstrous. But the perpetrators are still human beings. And I approach them with a very human attitude and they notice that. In a few minutes, I reveal more about the human soul than other films in an hour and a half."

For him, his films stem from a deep curiosity about the human condition, and where people are at a particular moment, as opposed to data and facts. ("Films that are too much after facts are always uninteresting," he quips.)

When Pope Benedict XVI was criticized for a 2018 text that was seen as critical of the Jewish faith, Herzog says, he didn't rely on news stories alone.

"Something didn't feel right. And I went straight to some of Benedict's speeches — for example his speech in Auschwitz," says Herzog. "And all of a sudden, you have a much, much deeper and different understanding of what you hear on the news. Very easy."

Of course, humanity is now caught in the grips of a global pandemic. So from a filmmaker's perspective, how does Herzog see it?

"I'm a keen observer, and since I'm a guest in the United States, and not a citizen, I have a different position because I can watch what is going on without the possibility of voting, so that restricts my interference," he says.

"I have a very, very keen interest in what is going on, how America is struggling at the moment."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Vanessa Greco.


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