Herzog by Ebert is a comprehensive collection of Ebert’s writings about the legendary director, featuring all of his reviews of individual films, as well as longer essays he wrote for his Great Movies series. The book also brings together other essays, letters, and interviews, including a letter Ebert wrote Herzog upon learning of the dedication to him of “Encounters at the End of the World;” a multifaceted profile written at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival; and an interview with Herzog at Facet’s Multimedia in 1979 that has previously been available only in a difficult-to-obtain pamphlet. Herzog himself contributes a foreword in which he discusses his relationship with Ebert.
Brimming with insights from both filmmaker and film critic, Herzog by Ebert will be essential for fans of either of their prolific bodies of work.
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Images at the Horizon
A workshop with Werner Herzog conducted by Roger Ebert at the Facets Multimedia Center, Chicago, Illinois, April 17, 1979
(Transcribed, annotated, and edited by Gene Walsh in 1979, and with additional, minor clarifications from Werner Herzog in 2017 indicated in brackets)
ROGER EBERT: I first saw your work at the 1968 New York Film Festival when you brought Signs of Life, which was your first feature-length film. You were a new name to us all at that time, and the New German Cinema itself was also very new, and now my personal opinion is that in the last eleven years — I hope I don't embarrass you by saying this — you have made the most interesting films given us by any single director. To my mind, you are the most interesting director of the 1970s. Unlike so many others, instead of just returning again and again to the same subject matter and expressing it in exactly the same style, each of your films has been a new departure and provided us with a new vision.
I think that one way to start this discussion tonight might be to ask you to talk about the three films that were shown here today: the feature-length documentary, Land of Silence and Darkness, and the two shorter documentaries, The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner and La Soufrière. I had seen the two shorter documentaries before, but tonight I saw Land of Silence and Darkness for the first time, and it seemed to me that this film has a certain definite connection with Kaspar Hauser: Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Both of these films seem to express your recognition of the fact that we all have a desperate need to communicate and that, in particular, a man — a person — who cannot speak and hear and talk and be understood is, in a very tragic way, completely closed off from existing as a human being.
WERNER HERZOG: Yes, it's true. I've always seen that very close connection between those two films. But I would also say Land of Silence and Darkness is very close to Nosferatu now, and it's very close to Woyzeck, and, of course, it's very close to Stroszek and to all the other films that I have made.
But Land of Silence and Darkness is a film that is particularly close to my heart because it is so pure. It's one of the purest films that I have ever made in the sense that it is one in which things are allowed to come across in the most direct way. The fact that it was made with a minimum of machinery and expense by just myself and one cinematographer, Schmidt-Reitwein, made possible this real difference in the directness of its approach.
Another reason that I like to show this film to more intimate audiences like this is because I would like that it should be a source of encouragement for all of you who want to make films. This particular film was made on less than thirty thousand dollars. You should know that you can make films like this almost without any money at all. You can make a film just with the guts, just with the sense that you have to make it. In fact, you can make a film like this for no money at all! You only have to steal, let's say, fifty thousand feet of raw stock, expropriate a camera for two weeks, and that's it!
(LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE.)
And so that's another of the reasons why I like to show this film.
Besides, when we tried to figure out the details of my stay here, I personally asked Milos Stehlik, the Director of Facets, and the people at New Yorker Films, who distribute most of my films in this country, to arrange to show some of my documentaries, because they are almost always neglected by the public, and yet for me they are just as important as my feature films. There is something in Land of Silence and Darkness that is almost like a part of me, but I would say that a film like The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner is a film which is also very close to me in a slightly different way. In Steiner the reasons for this feeling of closeness are, perhaps, even clearer, more nearly at the surface, because it's almost an autobiographical film. At one time I wanted to become a world champion in ski jumping myself, and I think it is only because I quit my career as a ski jumper at the age of sixteen that I then really started to make films.
RE: When exactly did you start to make films? You must have started very early. You're thirty-six years old now, and so your film, Signs of Life, must have been made when you were only twenty-four, and I understand that you made four short films even before that! Could you tell us something about those films?
WH: I started to make films very early. At the age of fourteen or fifteen it was already quite clear to me, apart from becoming a ski jumper, that I was going to make films. But, of course, I had many years of failures and humiliations. I did all the things that everyone does who tries to make films and doesn't really know what the business is all about: I submitted my projects to several producers and to various television stations and so on ... and all of them were rejected. It was very humiliating how these people kicked me out of their offices.
But finally when I was seventeen and a half or almost eighteen ...
RE: When you were sixteen, the networks weren't interested in you?
(LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE.)
WH: No, it's not like that because by that time I had already submitted one project — it was on reforms in penitentiaries — that those people actually liked very much. They said that they really wanted to make the film, but, since I had had such bad experiences in showing up myself, because I was still a schoolboy, I didn't want to walk into their office. I just made phone calls, and I wrote letters to them. I even had some letterhead printed to make myself look more impressive. Then, after two months of negotiations — because I wanted to direct the film myself — it was inevitable that I had to see them, and, when I finally walked into their office, a secretary opened the door, and they just looked beyond me as if expecting to see the father that had come with his boy!
(LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE.)
But, of course, there was no one behind me. All this lasted only ten seconds, and then the whole thing was over, but it made me very mad. Because these people had made such rude and insipid remarks, I thought to myself, "For heaven's sake, what made them 'producers,' these assholes?"
(LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE.)
How did these people become producers?
Out of this experience, I discovered that I would never be able to make a film in my whole life if I did not become a producer myself, and so the very same night I started to work in a factory — a steel factory — doing welding, and I did that for two years from eight o'clock at night until six in the morning. During the daytime I was still in school, but in the evenings [working the night shifts] I was able to make enough money to produce my first three short films.
RE: Was your first film shot in 35 mm?
WH: Yes, I started shooting with 35 mm film immediately.
RE: What were the subjects of your first films?
WH: My first film, Herakles, is a film that I do not like very much. I like all my films, but there are two among them that I really do not like that much. Herakles was only a sort of test for me in terms of learning how to edit very diversified materials. It's a film on bodybuilding, but it's just too superficial for me to be able to call it a real film on bodybuilding or anything else.
Then I made Game in the Sand in 1962. Only three or four people have seen it so far, and I really would not want to call this a "film." Not as long as I live!
And then I made Precautions against Fanatics and Last Words, but Last Words, a short film that I like very much, is a film which was made during the shooting of Signs of Life. I had written the screenplay for Signs of Life when I was nineteen, but it took me four years until I got all the finances together for it. So it was a very, very long hard struggle.
RE: In terms of the films that you have made since then, Signs of Life is a rather traditional film in style, isn't it?
WH: No, I don't agree. It only looks on the surface as if it were made in a traditional style, but, in fact, it's really a film that is unique in that it has complete innocence. It's my only innocent film. This kind of innocence is something like virginity that is over when once you do it.
RE: In other words, since Signs of Life was a film that you made without having made another feature, you were able to be completely fresh in your approach toward making it.
WH: No, it's something else. Even today I still am able to approach each film in a fresh way. It's something else. For example, when I see my films in a retrospective — and recently I saw Signs of Life in just this sort of a series — I always have the very strong feeling that this particular film is my only really innocent film. It was made somehow as if there were not film history. Something like that happens only once in your lifetime, because, when once you have lost this innocence by doing your first film, or maybe your second, or third, then you ...
RE: Then you become aware of yourself as an artist.
WH: No, but I think we should leave it at that. I cannot explain it any better.
RE: Your next film was Fata Morgana?
RE: That was a film that when it was first shown in this country — I don't know what kind of reception it got overseas — but it got a very hostile press in New York in particular.
WH: Almost everywhere.
RE: I remember at that time all the people who loved Signs of Life — when you came back to the New York Film Festival with Fata Morgana — they said, "Here is this promising young director — this brilliant director from Germany — why does he make such an inaccessible film? Why doesn't he want to make a film that people will want to come to see?"
WH: But it is not inaccessible. I found that out, and I told those people immediately, ten years ago, that they would soon get acquainted with this kind of filmmaking, and I think that it has all worked out that way now. After ten years, that film is still alive — still people go and see it — and they understand it much better now, I think.
It's very strange, but people always have certain expectations. They want me to do certain things that are just in their own minds. They do not see that I also have my needs and my anxieties and my fascinations. Then, for instance, when I come up with a film like Nosferatu — a vampire film — everyone starts to wonder just why I should want to make a vampire film, as if they just cannot believe it, and yet this film is so close to everything else that I have made so far!
You know it's very, very difficult for anyone to continue to work in this medium, because there's always some sort of public opinion or public expectation which interferes in some way. If I had followed up all the public expectations or even just the expectations of the press, I think I wouldn't have been able to make any films at all anymore!
Once in a while — very often, in fact — I have thought to myself, "Why are all these people so mad? Why are they so insane? Why don't they just accept what I do? Why not just come and have a look at it?" But instead they are always coming toward my work with plans for certain sorts of "prefabricated houses" already in their minds, and for some reason they expect that my work should follow exactly the pattern of those prefabricated mobile homes which they happen to have sticking somewhere in their brains.
RE: And, if we've seen Stroszek, we know you could never really count on a mobile home!
(LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE.)
But, if I were asked, and I have not been asked, so I will just, you know, kind of subtly ask myself, and then answer to the question, "What is the connection between Nosferatu and your other films in terms of both subject and theme?" My answer to this would be that in many of your films — both your fictional films and your documentaries — you seem to show a fascination with characters who live at an extreme of life. This could be either an extreme personal experience that is chosen or an extreme position that is forced upon them by circumstances: by a handicap, for example, or by cruel behavior, or by just their inherent oddness. However, when I suggested to you earlier that this was something that I saw again and again in your films — people living at the edge of life or at the extremes of existence — you said that this interpretation was somehow too simple.
WH: Yes, because I think that what you say carries with it an understanding, let's say, of a figure such as Kaspar Hauser, that he was something odd, or something marginal, or something bizarre, or something extreme. But, when you take a look at the film, you will find out very soon that Kaspar is the only one who makes sense, the only one who is dignified, who has a radical human dignity — and all the rest are insane and bizarre and eccentric. Yes, all the rest are eccentric! And I think that individuals like Kaspar Hauser are not so much "marginal" figures. They are just very pure figures that have somehow been able to survive in a more or less pure form. Sometimes, of course, they are under very heavy pressure, like, let's say, Steiner, or like Fini Straubinger, or even like myself when I was making La Soufrière. But, under this sort of pressure, people reveal their various natures to us. It's exactly the same that is done in chemistry when you have a particular substance that is unknown to you. When this happens, you must put this substance under extreme conditions — like extreme heat, extreme pressure, extreme radiation — and it is only then that you will be able to find out the essential structure of this substance which you are trying to explain and to discover and to describe.
RE: That, in a sense, is what happened in Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
WH: In almost all of the films.
RE: So, perhaps, when I'm saying that your characters are at extremes, it doesn't necessarily mean that they themselves are "extreme" objectively, but only that they are in an extreme relationship to the society that they find themselves in. Kaspar Hauser, for example, is very much an outsider as he is seen by everybody else who is alive at that time in that particular society.
WH: But he's not an outsider: he is the very center, and all the rest are outsiders! That's the point of the film.
I don't know exactly how many of you in this country also think that Kaspar is some kind of a bizarre strange figure, but, if you do, it's exactly the same thing that has happened with audiences, for example, in Germany. There's so much hatred there against my films that you probably wouldn't even believe it. Aguirre got by far the worst reviews that I've seen in ten years for any film, and now for Nosferatu it's still going on and on. In Germany, in my own country, people have tried to label me personally as an eccentric, as some sort of strange freak that does not fit into any of their patterns. And that's ridiculous. They are insane!
(LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE, FOLLOWED BY APPLAUSE.)
RE: I was rather shocked when you told me that Aguirre ran for only three weeks in Munich, which is your home city, and then moved to another theater where it only ran for one additional week. Later, when people there said, "Well, why can't we see it?" you told them that they all could have seen it if only they had given it the proper support. Did you know that Aguirre even had a longer run than that right here in Chicago?
RE: To begin with, I think, there was a built-in resistance on the part of Chicago audiences — and even American audiences in general — to films from Germany from directors that they had not yet heard about, but then an educational process went forward. Places like Facets and the Film Festival and the Film Centerbegan to show all these interesting new German films — I'm stressing this point because I think it's generally agreed that many of the most interesting films of the last ten years have been coming out of Germany — with the eventual result that an audience has now developed to the point where your films do play here commercially, and while they don't make as much money as they do in Rome, for example, where your Nosferatu has just broken the house record recently set by Grease, and while we realize that that degree of commercial success is probably not going to happen in Chicago for quite a few years, nevertheless, the turnout here tonight, for example, and the successful commercial runs of your films in this city would seem to indicate that you are not considered by us to be quite as "bizarre," shall we say, as you are in Germany.
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Table of ContentsForeword by Werner Herzog
Editorial Note Part 1: Facets Multimedia, 1979 Images at the Horizon 3 Notes Part 2: Reviews Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Nosferatu the Vampyre
Burden of Dreams (directed by Les Blank)
Where the Green Ants Dream
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
My Best Fiend
The White Diamond
Walking to Werner (directed by Linas Phillips)
Encounters at the End of the World
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Into the Abyss Part 3: Interviews At Cannes Film Festival, May 1982
Herzog Defies Death for His Films, May 20, 1984
Herzog Finds Truth beyond Fact, September 29, 1998
A Conversation with Werner Herzog, August 28, 2005
“Tell Me about the Iceberg, Tell Me about Your Dreams,” July 7, 2008
The Ecstasy of the Filmmaker Herzog, April 6, 2010 Part 4: The Great Movies Aguirre, the Wrath of God
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Heart of Glass
Nosferatu the Vampyre
Fitzcarraldo Part 5: Summing Up A Letter to Werner Herzog: In Praise of Rapturous Truth, November 17, 2007
Herzog and the Forms of Madness, July 20, 2008 Comments The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Herzog, January 26, 2013
Appendix: Walker Art Center, 1999 Note concerning Herzog’s Films
Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” Index