At the Heart of Werner Herzog’s Brilliance, an Uncomfortable Relationship with Truth

Nick Fraser on a Lifetime of Reckoning with Facts

If you are in luck at Sundance, you’ll catch a glimpse of Werner Herzog walking up Main Street. Against the half-swept snow, his beautiful Siberian wife on his arm, he looks like a visitor from a more civilized Grand Hotel world. But this is an illusion. His life has been spent describing danger, on the periphery of catastrophe. Herzog was born in 1942. His father served in the army, while his mother was a biology teacher, and he recalled the arrival of American troops. The family moved back to post-war Munich, where Herzog organized his own education, while acquiring a permanent admiration for America that distinguishes him from his generation of Germans. Wim Wenders is the same. Much of the fragile and harried boy survivor in J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun survives in Herzog’s book of interviews:

Do you ever get bored?

The word is not in my vocabulary. I astonish my wife by being capable of standing and staring through the window for days at a time. I may look catatonic, but not so inside. Wittgenstein talked about looking through the closed window of a house and seeing a man standing and flailing about strangely. You can’t see or hear the violent storms raging outside and don’t realize it’s taking great effort for this man even to stand on his own two feet. There are hidden storms within us all.

“Always take the initiative,” Herzog told young filmmakers. “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliché. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.” In 1999, after a long transatlantic flight that left him sleepless, and after watching an ineptly made nature film on TV and some porn, Herzog came up with the bizarrely devised Minnesota Declaration:

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Cinéma vérité is fact-oriented and primitive. It is the accountant’s truth, merely skirting the surface of what constitutes a deeper form of truth in cinema, reaching only the most banal level of understanding. If facts had any value, if they truly illuminated us, if they unquestionably stood for truth, the Manhattan phone directory would be the book of books . . . Too many documentary filmmakers have failed to divorce themselves clearly enough from the world of journalism. I hope to be one of those who bury cinéma vérité for good.

In his quest for truth, Herzog admitted to “playing with facts,” thus struggling against the bureaucrats who ran television. He suggested that young filmmakers should do the same. He’d become a proponent of what he called “ecstatic truth,” as if all truth were somehow rapturously anchored in ecstasy, or at least all important truths, while the less important aspects of existence somehow shouldn’t matter too much, at least to filmmakers. Meanwhile, he’d set up his own film academy, in which one might learn “The art of lock picking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self-reliance.” He explained: “I prefer people who have worked as bouncers in a sex club or have been wardens in the lunatic asylum. You must live life in its very elementary forms. The Mexicans have a very nice word for it: pura vida. It doesn’t mean just purity of life, but the raw, stark-naked quality of life. And that’s what makes young people more into a filmmaker than academia.”

Something important in Herzog’s sensibility comes from the German Romantics, with their insistence on the obligation to be authentic.

Herzog was right to rail at what had become the mechanical orthodoxy of documentary filmmaking, in which subjects were routinely processed for captive TV audiences. He took filmmaking from its rich-kid doldrums. His own fiction films contained a powerful dose of non-fiction, often seeming to veer into a highly sophisticated equivalent of reality television, in which the actors suffer in Herzog’s search of ultimate authenticity. Burden of Dreams (1982), a documentary by Les Blank, is an indispensable complement to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, which described the effort involved in dragging a steamer over an Amazonian mountain.

I wasn’t sure what to make of these assertions. I could see the value of factual enquiry, but there was something wholly wonderful about Herzog’s battles against factual tyranny. So much of German post-war history, East or West, was utterly grey. German cultural life had consisted of warnings against taking the wrong turns, and it took courage to buck this. The lies implicit in this cult of reasonableness had been frequent and horrible; having worked both in the defunct GDR and in the Federal Republic, I could vouch for this. Something important in Herzog’s sensibility comes from the German Romantics, with their insistence on the obligation to be authentic.

Running around the world, from volcanoes and smoking oil wells to the wastes of Antarctica, he seemed wonderfully authentic, like the aging versions of eternally young men whom Britain let loose on the world in quest of adventure during the age of empire. He seemed to love, or at least respect, the oddballs he met in his quests. I liked the way he was always able to disguise his own excessive normality by associating himself with madmen—wholly dysfunctional characters like his “best fiend” Klaus Kinski or mildly eccentric scientists. I could applaud, too, his insistence that some images were special and that humanity was now marooned in an endless tide of banally and impersonally distributed dreck. Herzog’s best films reclaimed the act of seeing for us. At the same time, he had successfully persuaded many generations of film-school graduates that seeing was somehow autonomous. If you took his obiter dicta seriously, you wouldn’t really have to know anything. You could just go and make films, and they would supply your own store of knowledge.

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My own intermittent dealings with Herzog, conducted through pliant intermediaries and emails, were hilariously at cross purposes. We collaborated on one of his less successful efforts, a sci-fi fantasy based on ice-tank footage from NASA (The Wild Blue Yonder, 2005), in which he imagined a planet come astray in the distant future. Some of the film was shot around abandoned supermarkets in California. I wrote to him saying I felt like the copy-editor of an H. G. Wells novel on speed; tactfully, he didn’t reply. Frequently, he claimed the right to use material in the way he thought fit. In many respects, not least the voice, he resembled Orson Welles, utterly certain in his endless pursuit of contingency. “Death did not want him,” Herzog’s basso commentary tells us with regard to the ultimate rescue of Dieter Dengler, in his masterpiece, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Dengler is another Herzog doppelgänger, but one closer to him than the others: born in the same chaos of beaten-up Germany, in quest of something, washed up in the US, hoarding food in his isolated northern California house, still fearful.

Dieter, like Herzog, wanted to fly, because he recalled the sight of American pilots rocketing past his German village in 1945, cockpit open and goggles on their forehead. He loved the glamour of flight, and this, in the vein of Saint-Exupéry or Korean War veteran James Salter’s Burning the Days, is the true subject of Herzog’s film. Dieter immigrated to the US in order to escape Germany. He went to university, and found himself flying for the US Navy over Laos. Shot down, he was maltreated by the Pathet Lao and escaped through the jungle. He was finally rescued, seemingly by chance. Herzog takes poor Dieter back to his jungle hell. It would seem that he never really recovered, keeping extra reserves of food and going back over the death of his beloved comrade, who was beheaded by pro-Vietcong villagers. But this isn’t the real message of the film. Herzog wants to tell us that, somehow, people do survive. They are wounded, but they go on. For him, this is far more important than whether the war was a good idea or not.

In an astonishing final sequence in an aircraft graveyard in the desert, he tells us he’s in “pilot heaven.” Many I know found the film repulsive in its casual acceptance of actions that cause death or mayhem, but I’m sure that Herzog also wants us to think of bravery and recklessness. What propels young human males towards danger? Of all Herzog’s films, and aside from his early fictional masterpieces, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Little Dieter was his most poignant. It’s hard to watch it with-out thinking of the more than one million young Germans who let themselves be driven to death by a psychopath. They weren’t all criminals; most of them didn’t get to fly, but some did. What are we to think of them, and Dieter? Herzog tells us that at one viewing, a television executive had to leave the room because he felt sick.

The film never received its due—mainly, I suspect, because those who program at festivals aren’t sympathetic towards the admiration of the US military expressed by Dieter. I felt exhilarated. In its own modest way, Dieter’s life seemed to describe post-war Germany, and I was grateful to Herzog for this truth, however he had chosen to wrap it. “If so much is invented,” asks the critic Ian Buruma, who admires Herzog’s oeuvre, while retaining some doubts about his inventions, “how do we know what is true? Perhaps Dengler was never shot down over Laos. Perhaps he never existed. Perhaps, perhaps.” Yes, but Dengler did exist, he did suffer, and Herzog captured his experience.

Herzog, drawn towards darkness and reluctant to let go of what he had found, like a prized dog, had brought it back for scrutiny.

As I watched Herzog’s films, I found that I often agreed with him—not with his methodological musings, but with the often unacceptable truths that he was able to convey to my rather stoic Anglo-Saxon self. I didn’t want to, but Herzog, drawn towards darkness and reluctant to let go of what he had found, like a prized dog, had brought it back for scrutiny. In Grizzly Man (2005), he introduces us to Timothy Treadwell, who died in 2003 with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, eaten by a grizzly bear in the Alaskan wilderness after having spent 13 summers living with bears. The film’s subject is among the most moving of Herzog’s recuperations from the chaos of life. He doesn’t like Treadwell’s ideas about the harmony and sanctity of nature. In his view, humans are different from animals. One should strive to comprehend them, and not, as Treadwell did, idealize them. Many of Treadwell’s views—about the remarkable aspect of piles of bear shit, for instance—are ridiculous. But Herzog focuses only on why Treadwell held the views he did.

It transpires that Treadwell was needy, a failed actor, an ex-alcoholic. He did love these huge animals and liked being around them. It’s intimated that this love was born out of a sense of hopelessness, and that by the time he and Amy were attacked and chewed into pieces, he wanted to quit humans. The story is told with great brio, but with compassion, too. Among the many tapes of Treadwell’s bear and fox encounters, containing the most naive ramblings to camera, is the final one, recorded with a cap on the lens, which captures the couple’s last moments. A pathologist tells us what the tape reveals about their appalling deaths, but Herzog, after listening to it, tells Treadwell’s best friend that she must destroy it and never listen to it.

Herzog’s work still elicits controversy, and there are many who don’t admire it. A friend tells me that he also thinks that Herzog finds Treadwell merely foolish, and that his expressing his admiration for Treadwell’s boldness is fake. I’m not so sure. Herzog’s extraordinary narrative sleight of hand deals out the details of Treadwell’s end with the skill of a practiced card sharp. But he has to do this, otherwise we’d be bored by Treadwell.

Many of his films are meditations on what we learn about man through nature. An Alaskan anthropologist talks about the “line between bear and human” that one mustn’t cross. But humans are always crossing lines—that is what they do, out of curiosity or compulsion. The really significant truth of Treadwell’s story is that the Disneyish, “sentimentalized view” of nature, in which perfection belongs to animals and not to rapacious and cruel humans, is not just wrong, but lethal. “Here I differ from Treadwell,” Herzog says. “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” In the bear’s expressionless face and huge jaws, one can see nothing of that “secret world of the bear” that Treadwell trekked into the wilderness to observe, “but the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Werner is a pessimist and a sceptic, not a cynic. There are few people capable of giving us such bad news with so much eloquence. The worst is here around us, in any place we care to look. Do we want to look? Herzog asks us. Do we really want to look?

It took television many years to accommodate any degree of narrative sophistication. On television, as anyone will tell you, it is next to impossible to imply that what you are showing might not be true. Television is without perceptible style, but it insists, often misleadingly, on the notion that what it depicts is “real.” Its narratives come concealed behind a bland, undifferentiated flow of images. Filmmakers can choose to allow themselves to drown in the flow or they can attempt to use the non-idiom of television for subversive purposes. They can do us a service by showing how the images of television are at odds with reality. With persistence, it is possible to get us to see how disconnected our media-drenched lives have become.

It was a film set in the early 1970s that seemed most bizarrely prophetic to the problems of contemporary reportage. At its largest, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) boasted nine militants, most of them from the vicinity of Berkeley. Its communiqués invariably ended with the Buck Rogers meets Chairman Mao message DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS ON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE. But the SLA became more celebrated than the other underground groups that came into being in emulation of the Black Panthers. This was because of the kidnap of the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974.

For almost two years, America hung on every rumor regarding Patty’s whereabouts. Was she a victim of her kidnappers, or had she become a willing participant? The footage of her participation in a raid on a bank and photos of her carrying a machine gun while posing in front of the snakelike SLA emblem seemed to indicate that she had joined the struggle against capitalism, but her utterances (“Mom, Dad, I’m OK. I’m with a combat group that’s armed with automatic weapons . . .”) sounded over-rehearsed, drugged.

In Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004), Robert Stone never pretends to solve the Patty mystery. He’s an ironist, illustrating the fatuity of West Coast revolution with Hollywood images of Robin Hood and posing the question of whether the idea of insurrection can mean much in a society such as California’s has become. He’s interested in the Berkeley waters in which the SLA swam to the surface. He sees the story, correctly, as the first instance of the taking over of media by terrorists—a phenomenon with which we are by now only too familiar, elegantly defined by the French theorist Guy Debord as “the society of the spectacle.”

Patty’s story continued to be the source of pop non-fiction, but few looked at the implications of the narrative into which she had strayed. Stone found much of his astonishing footage while it was being thrown out by cost-cutting TV stations. The hacks appear bemused by their own capacity to manufacture news out of nothing. They acknowledge the vacuity of their own work as they stand outside the Hearst mansion, while enjoying the picnic environment. “We never discussed should we be doing this,” a newsman says. “We were acting as messengers for the family and back again.”

At Patty’s behest, the Hearsts spent millions handing out food to the Californian poor. Superficially, the SLA accomplished nothing, but they sped into existence the media-drenched world in which we now struggle to stay afloat, where trivia and significance come hopelessly bundled. I sat behind Patty, pardoned by Bill Clinton, when she watched the premiere of the film at Sundance, and I asked her what she thought of the film. “It was interesting,” she said, and I believe she meant it.

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say what happened
Excerpted from Say What Happened: A Story of Documentaries by Nick Fraser. Published with permission from Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Fraser.

Nick Fraser
Nick Fraser
Nick Fraser is founder and editor of documentary streaming service Yaddo, former commissioning editor of BBC Storyville, and the author of Say What Happened: A Story of Documentaries.





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