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Werner Herzog: ‘Film-making is always some sort of risk-taking’ (ft.com)
136 points by joubert 37 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

My single favorite scene from any Herzog related film:


Herzog inquires and videos insane penguins in Antarctica as they march on towards their doom.

Another good one. Herzog waxing poetic on the jungle:


I love his work but sometimes I wonder how much he’s actually trying to be funny with these sorts of comments. Maybe just overly serious as a younger man?

“The birds don’t sing they screech in pain.”

This could be a documentary about my research career.

Everytime I read the words "but why?", I hear them in his voice over here.

There's something so absurd about tiny flapping, waddling penguins as an animal, and yet they seem relatable too as they go about their day everyday, including the insane penguins in question.

Thank you for posting this - one of the most simultenously amusing/depressing things I have ever seen!

So sad

Running joke with the boss - we will do it only if you eat your shoe - https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/1979-werner-herzog-at...

If you enjoyed this interview, I recommend you check out the book Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (https://www.amazon.com/Werner-Herzog-Perplexed-Conversations...), which is essentially a 400-page interview transcript covering Herzog's autobiography and filmography. One of the most inspiring books I've ever read.

One of the greatest documentalists of our time. A favorite quote that has a double meaning in this context:

Storyboards are the instruments of the cowards

(For the record, I don't believe the above is true for iOS development :)

> Storyboards are the instruments of the cowards

It is Mr. Herzog's slightly pedantic tongue in cheek, semi-flamboyant, original way of saying that his type of cinema doesn't require storyboards. That is fine, as long as no one misunderstands it for saying that he doesn't need a script to plan his shots and can rely solely on artistic brilliance and improvisation, which couldn't be further from the truth.

Of course, most documentaries and art films don't need a visual screenplay like a storyboard, because it wouldn't make sense to script the action besides the fact that there is little action in those films. It is kind of logical and has nothing to do with being particularly brave. Now, action movies require storyboards because otherwise, the director wouldn't know what to do and would blow the studio's budget and get fired. Not using a storyboard wouldn't make the director a coward, but it would be unprofessional.

In cinema and documentaries and even to do YouTube videos, you need a plan, an outline, or a script. Without a planning tool, you will blow up your budget and end up with a second rate product. A storyboard is a planning tool you need when your scene is complex and will require tight control of your budget. It is just a tool and doesn't impede your improvisation abilities or choices or make you afraid of anything. That's silly.

Not just documentaries, but films too. Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Aguirre Wrath of God are some of the best films ever made.

This guy dragged a boat over a freaking mountain so he knows what he’s talking about.

Not to forget when he was shot "with an insignificant bullet" in the middle of a BBC interview in LA[1].

Also, if I had the choice between dragging a 320 ton steamship over a mountain in the Amazon rainforest and working with a gun carrying Klaus Kinski, I'd certainly chose the former. No wonder nothing can frighten Werner Herzog, I guess.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrRNM9cMBDk

While I applaude and admire his effort, I am somewhat concerned with the result. Can anybody elaborate why his movies are considered great? (This is not a rhetorical question, I am curious what other see that I do not.)

I love many of Werner's movies (and dislike a couple). He tends to root things in historical fact without going too far afield. His protagonists are usually realistically flawed and frequently outright unhinged (e.g. most of Kinski's roles). Many of his films have a uniquely lyrical character, and his taste in music usually coincides with my own. (If you hate the music a director chooses it often makes it hard to like his films). His documentaries (e.g. "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" or "Grizzly Man") feature unique and fascinating people, and Herzog digs deep into their stories.

It's okay to hate good films though. A big part of appreciating culture is learning to recognize when something is good, but not for you. e.g. Many go gaga for Antonioni's "L'Avventura". It may have done some pretty revolutionary things for film, but I hate it with a passion. I can't stand it's plot structure and loathe every one of it's characters. I recognize that it is a good film, but also that it's not for me.

Be careful to say, "I didn't like that film" instead of "That is a bad film because I didn't like it".

Here's Roger Ebert on Herzog's Nosferatu, one of my favorites: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-nosferatu-the... . For me, the quality of Herzog's films is wildly variable, but in his best films, he's a poet of human extremes and vulnerabilities, as in his documentary The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, about a champion ski jumper https://slate.com/culture/2018/02/the-genius-of-werner-herzo... and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-enigma-of-kaspar-haus...

His movies are insufferable, they mock humanity, they are low-ingredient-count/genuine, and they convey very few life lessons to take outside the movie. But the flip side of these attributes also make these movies great.

Insufferable: He doesn't just convey a feeling to his audience. He makes the audience feel it directly. If he wants to convey boredom, he bores you. If he wants to convey patiences, he makes you wait patiently. If he wants to convey discomfort, he'll make you feel uncomfortable.

Mocking: He mocks his subjects in many ways, but mocking also seems to be his main way to express admiration. He mocks man's battle against nature. "Man is a fool. Nature wins" is a binding theme, yet he believes greatness only comes form that struggle (hunting in the taiga, an impromptu hike through France and Germany, Fitzcarraldo, playing chicken with an active volcano, etc). The more highly his subject thinks about himself (and it's always a "he"), the more he savages them with mockery (that includes all PhDs in his movies, and every character who wants to be on camera). The more prestigious the character, the more he lunges at them. And if he can't make them flinch with his mockery, he holds the shot steady long enough for the viewer to flinch. He needs someone to flinch in his mockery/respect/admiration game.

Low-ingredient/genuine: In his older films, his actors were raw (either because they weren't actors, or because they were Kinski). Hertzog portrays himself on the scene through his characters, and criticizes himself. The struggles he documents remind him of his own follies. He makes fun of his characters to criticize himself. It's a form of bullying for sure, but it's also a genuine form of self-criticism.

No life lessons: You might walk away thinking "what did i learn from that movie?" Usually you'll have learned nothing (Rescue Dawn might be an exception, because it's really a Hollywood film. But think about his documentary about the skiing wood carver. You learn zero things about skiing or wood carving). But you've walked away with a shitload of feelings. You've been through the ringer. These feelings seem to dissipate soon after the movie, but the sounds, the music, the tone of his voice, the periodic movements in the scene all stay with you. These images have a taste, and you'll remember their taste for years to come.

I hate his movies, but I've watched every one of them to understand why I hate them. I wish kinski had succeeded in strangling him, or that pellet had not be so insignificant, or that Alice Waters had let him choke on that shoe. But there's no escaping the images, I'll always feel haunted.

This is such an interesting take. I find it exceedingly difficult to argue with any of your points but I might add one which, though subjective or arguable, may change your mind or at least offer some insight into why some people love his work.

I find Herzog to be low-key hilarious. Pretty much all my friends, who also dig his work, do as well. I think he tips his hand in this regard quite a bit with Bad Lieutenant 2. Also, notice how when he speaks to live audiences the way he feeds off their laughter and I would argue here is also playing them for laughs in a way a comedian would.

I’m not saying that Herzog is a pure comedic film maker such as Mel Brooks or something but his movies take on a whole new dimension when you realize that yes he is taking a hard look at horror sometimes but I think he also laughs at absurdity quite a bit as well.

Also, his DIY attitude and strong work ethic are admirable qualities as well.

you're right. he's hilarious. His diatribes on chickens, for example, i'm sure he does entirely for comedic value.

For sure. I think the only thing he’s done which is completely serious was that texting and driving PSA from like 10 years ago. Herzog is a joker but he’s not obnoxiously obvious about it.

Someone here posted a link to Ebert’s essay on Nosferatu where he goes on about The film’s cinematography (which actually is freakin excellent mind you) and it’s milky under saturated etherealness.. Yeah sure but come on it’s Kinski, who is an absolute nutter, like nutter prime, in a ridiculous vampire costume! Herzog’s humour is underrated.

He said somewhere that he wants to portray the 'madness in the hearts of men' and I think that is a very good guiding principle to view his oeuvre from.

They're considered great by the people who consider them great. Personally, I think he's insufferable. He was granted exclusive access to make a documentary about the Chauvet caves, and made a film mostly about himself. What a waste.

An artist is always fundamentally speaking about themselves— they have no choice in this. Herzog’s self applied to various subjects is just really compelling.

But I've loved this film. It was one of these rare 3D movies where the 3D made sense.

Hmm. I didn’t have the benefit of 3D, I saw it on TV.

The atmosphere inside the cave was as real as you can imagine in 3D, in a cinema. You really feel inside the cave.

Another fantastic documentary to see in 3D, in a cinema, was "Pina".

Must say, his portrait of Rheinhold Messner's and Hans Kammerlander's double summit of both Gasherburms in one go is on another level compared to basically any mountain documentaries of that era. Name is Dark glow of the mountains, german speaking but I found some english subtitles.

You have dark aspects of protagonists revealed, questions about what to do with belongings if they don't come back and so on. Its not the style that was common at that time. I mean, it gives you perspective on extreme mountaineering and people doing it like few documents do, even in these days.

Whether you like Messner's personality or not, its a damn fine documentary and shows why these guys are not mere athletes like world champions/olympic winners.

i can only speak for myself ...

as directors go, herzog is wildly uneven. a lot of his stuff strikes me as right on the money, exposing truths i wouldn't have known otherwise. a bunch more of it seems self-indulgent and unnecessary.

having said all that, i'm inclined to watch anything from him i haven't already seen. he's always trying something new.

i would say i value novelty over almost any other quality i might find in movies and teevee. herzog delivers that in spades.

Fitzcarraldo for anyone who doesn't know the reference.

He didn't, he hired indigenous people to do it.

I’m not sure hired is the right word — Herzog was very clear that the indigenous people were independent contractors not employees.

In Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, one of Travis Kalanick’s lieutenants said the director’s commentary of the Criterion Collection edition of Fitzcarraldo provided the final spark that set the whole business idea in motion.

And worked with Kinski. Lucky he's still alive!

brilliant movies though...

It's Kinski that is lucky to have survived the filming:

"In My Best Fiend, Herzog says that one of the native chiefs offered in all seriousness to kill Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed the actor to complete filming"[1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fitzcarraldo

Yeah the movie made it very blurry as to whether Herzog liked, respected, tolerated, or used Kinski. Maybe all those things.

Aguirre was the film that inspired late Taiwanese-American director Edward Yang (one of my favourite directors) to become a filmmaker and ignited his love of film. He was reportedly working as an engineer in tech. Perhaps Herzog will inspire one of us here on HN to become director too.

It looks like archive.is finally resolves correctly via Cloudflare DNS servers.

Wow, finally indeed. That's been a pain for the longest time. What was the holdup anyway?

That tends to be intermittent, with some domains responding, some not, at any one time.

There was also a very good interview done with him (~1.5hrs) a while back https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eua5iPUKw6Y

Unfortunately this was the interview that diminished my opinion of him somewhat. He was obnoxiously self-absorbed and self-congratulatory throughout.

I see what you mean, but wow, his description of Klaus Kinski frothing at the mouth while shattering a wine glass by screaming at it (whether true or not) definitely makes me want to keep watching -- Herzog is unapologetically over the top, but he sure knows how to tell a story.

I mean, if there was someone who could scream at a wine glass loud enough to make it shatter, Klaus Kinksi would be that person. He was, by all accounts, only of utility to humanity when chained to a stage. Even the director who made "Please Kill Mr. Kinski" after working with him said that he was great in front of a camera.

You just need to scream at the resonant frequency of the glass to make it shatter. You can teach yourself how to do it

There are plenty of self-absorbed and self-congratulatory people who do nothing. I'm inclined to give artists a free pass. Authenticity is so endangered these days. After all, you can just ignore them, which is in fact a terrible punishment for an artist.

My read was similar, I also couldn’t get through Lo and Behold which set off bullshit alarms [0] and just gave me the impression of confidence being used in the place of actual explanation.

It feels like an emperor has no clothes situation. For some reason people think it signals high status or intellectualism to like Herzog so they say they do.

I haven’t watched all of his movies so this may be unfairly harsh, but that was my initial impression.

Portal podcast also came across that way to me. First interview with Thiel was interesting, but I stopped somewhere after the next couple.

Too much “the media doesn’t want us to talk about this” and “the Clintons are a globalist conspiracy against the people”.

If you have real arguments then make them.

Don’t just confidently state things as fact without backing them up.

Thankfully when Sam Harris was on he at least pushed back on some of the bullshit.

[0]: https://youtu.be/Bqx6li5dbEY

Okay, I'm curious: why did Ted Nelson set off the BS-meter in Lo and Behold?

Project Xanadu may have been the longest vaporware project in history, but Nelson himself is well-respected by many others, some of whom are near-universally respected (e.g. Alan Kay and Woz).

I saw the documentary on Netflix and was excited that it might be about Licklider and that part of computing history which I had read some about.

I have a natural aversion when people talk about things in kind of vague mystical ways (the fingers running through the water), or when they confidently state something without stating why (complaining that copy/paste was some disaster to humanity, but not actually saying or explaining anything about it).

I like when documentaries or experts love their topic and revel in breaking it down and explaining it clearly. Some of the smartest people I know are also the first to help explain a complicated topic they're interested in to a curious lay person.

The documentary did the opposite for me, taking an interesting topic and using confusing non-explanations to make it seems more confusing than it is.

This really bothers me because it makes the curious person think it's beyond their understanding, when usually it's the person explaining that's just making it hard to understand. It felt like the director was pushing more complexity because it made it seem more 'magical', but magic is the opposite of clarity.

This could be unfairly uncharitable since it's only a short clip (and I don't know much about Ted Nelson - though I have read a lot about and respect Kay and Woz), but my impression from this was negative.

I enjoyed the film, but it was not what I expected going in. (To be honest, the Ted Nelson scene is one of the few I remember from the movie. Though I do recall he wandered around the National Radio Quiet Zone to meet some eccentric folks, and he also went to the room at UCLA where one of the first ARPANET messages was sent to SRI.)

I would ultimately like to see a well-made, intelligently crafted documentary (or even documentary mini-series) about the actual creation of the Internet that does emphasize that it's not some arcane subject that only wizards can understand (though it should portray the people who invented this stuff ex nihilo as the geniuses that they are).

I do agree with Ted about copy-paste though. ;)

Thanks for sharing!


32-ish-year-old Herzog (in German) is another fun thing to compare.


The paywall is stopping me from learning Herzog appreciates the Fast and Furious franchise as much as I do.

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