The Heart of a Chicken: Notes on Werner Herzog

by Eli S. Evans

There is a moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 Masculin Feminin in which the character played by a young and brilliant Jean-Pierre Léaud claims that one day at home while eating mashed potatoes his father discovered why the earth goes round the sun. “Galileo discovered it first,” he a moment later concedes, “but all of a sudden, just like that, my father had rediscovered why the earth goes round the sun exactly as Galileo did originally.” It’s a joke, of course – after all, one need not have specific knowledge of the work of Galileo in order to be living in a world organized in part according to the assumption that the “earth goes round the sun,” and in which that fact is therefore not something to be discovered but, if anything, only noticed. By contrast, I do not believe celebrated filmmaker Werner Herzog was joking when, during a public conversation with travel writer and general spiritualist Pico Iyer that I attended a couple of years ago, now, in Santa Barbara, California, he claimed to have discovered the art of filmmaking, all on his own, as a child growing up in the German countryside. Effectively cut off from all forms of media, he explained, at the precocious age of fifteen he nonetheless understood what a film was and moreover that it was his destiny to spend his life making them. In retrospect, the monumental pomposity of such a claim is perfectly evident. In person – no doubt in part because the person in question was Herzog himself, who in 2006 was actually shot during an interview and carried on with the interview, later remarking, “It was not a significant bullet, I am not afraid” – it was profoundly unsettling.

I have been thinking back on the two hours I spent listening to Herzog’s one-sided conversation with Iyer recently as a result of the recent Internet sensation created by the circulation of a short video of the filmmaker discussing chickens. The video, produced and directed by Siri Bunford and Tom Streithorst, features Herzog, in what one imagines is his Los Angeles home, dressed all in rumpled blacks and grays and seated in a wide wingback chair upholstered in an unattractive floral fabric. Drapes drawn over its only visible window, the light in the room is a kind of bilious yellow, the color of bad breath, or sallow flesh. Behind Herzog and to his right hangs an ornately framed mirror, while in the other direction what appears to be the stuffed body of an animal I cannot identify has been placed atop a small credenza. On a round tray table to his immediate left sit a mug (of tea, most likely) and, imprisoned in a glass dome with a wooden base, a miniature male lion, holding what looks like the body of a bird or small mammal in its jaw, stands slightly reared in the shade of two similarly miniature (but disproportionately so, relative to the lion) palm trees. During forty seconds, speaking in what Slate Magazine’s L.V. Anderson rather lyrically described as his “heavily accented, absurdly deep, simultaneously affectless and warm” voice, Herzog holds court with his silent and invisible interlocutors on the subject of chickens. In a moment that has already become the stuff of legend he tells them, “Try to look a chicken in the eye with great intensity, and the intensity of stupidity that is looking back at you is just amazing,” before adding that in “one or two films” he has shown the ease with which, presumably as a result of their intense stupidity, chickens can be hypnotized (the obvious reference is to his 1974 The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser).

It’s all a bit maddening. On the one hand, Herzog’s cool evisceration of the chicken, especially in so far as it is linked directly to its gaze – the gaze it returns to the one who gazes at it – seems to partake of the perverse inversion one unfailingly finds at the heart of the logic of domination: a transformation, by way of its recoding as incomprehension, of that fundamental incomprehensibility of the other from which issues the demand for hospitality without reserve into the foundation for a dehumanization of the same that gives license, in its place, to a violence without reservation. For the self-described “conquistador” Herzog, thus, the opacity of the chicken’s gaze becomes a sign not of its alterity but its “stupidity,” keeping in mind that the word “stupid” derives from the Latin stupidus, in whose meaning – “struck senseless” – brute violence meets a potential semantic confusion of the incomprehensible and the uncomprehending. On the other hand, to respond with such gravity to the chicken video is to risk being played the fool. All things considered – the little lion (an animal Herzog has publicly admired) encased in glass on the table beside him, the lifeless body, on the credenza beneath the window, of what may never have been an animal at all but perhaps only some distant relative of the jackalope, the perfectly timed forty seconds that, as far as I have been able to determine, do not pertain to any larger project – it seems possible, and perhaps altogether likely, that the video is a send up, or a put-on: not really Herzog but, as many viewers have speculated, Herzog “doing” Herzog. As such, to subject what he says in the video to genuine critique might only be to demonstrate that lack of perceptive acumen on the basis of which Herzog generally dismisses all of his detractors in advance, anyway.

Rather than saying more than I have already about the chicken video, therefore, I will instead take its recent irruption onto the cultural scene as an occasion to recount a story the Herzog told during the aforementioned conversation with Pico Iyer, and which in its way perhaps raises some of the same issues. It is a story the details of which, though they were new to me at the time, were surely well known to much of an audience that, that Santa Barbara evening, appeared comprised almost exclusively of fervent Herzog fans. It had been told on film already in the autobiographical Portrait Werner Herzog, released in 1986, and before that in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, a well-known documentary movie about the making of Herzog’s 1982 Fitzcarraldo. The “burden” in the title of Blank’s documentary refers first of all to the 320-ton steamer ship Fitzcarraldo’s eponymous protagonist, an opera-loving aspiring rubber baron, must haul up and over a steep hillside between two small tributaries deep in the Amazon in order to gain access to the parcel of rubber rich land he has leased from the Peruvian government, and second of all to the 320-ton steamship that, for the filming of Fitzcarraldo’s climactic scene, Herzog actually had hauled up and over an isthmus separating two Amazon tributaries deep in the Peruvian jungle southeast of Cuzco; the “dreams,” meanwhile, to Fitzcarraldo’s of using funds gained through the exploitation of his virtually inaccessible tract of land to build an opera house in the jungle city of Iquitos, but also Herzog’s of creating the scene in which a 320-ton steamship was hauled over a hill from one tributary river to the next deep in the Peruvian jungle by actually having a 320-ton steamship hauled over a hill from one tributary river to the next deep in the Peruvian jungle.

In the film, Fitzcarraldo enlists a troupe of natives to move the boat by way of a primitive pulley system, and they comply because they believe that, with his shock of white hair and crazy eyes, he is a messenger from the gods; for production of the film, Herzog similarly enlisted a troupe of “natives,” as he himself described them – convincing them to play along by paying them what from his perspective was a fairly negligible sum of money but, he pointed out to Iyer, at the time far more than they could have reasonably hoped to earn by any other means – who, with a few specialists clearing the path ahead of it with chainsaws, moved the boat by way of a more advanced, but apparently dangerously shoddy (during filming Herzog’s lead engineer quit because he believed there was a seventy percent chance its cables would snap and did not want to be responsible for the carnage that would result from such a mishap), pulley system.


Herzog during the filming of Burden of Dreams

As Herzog told it the night I saw him in Santa Barbara – and footage in Burden of Dreams confirms his recollection – the mud on the hillside on which he filmed Fitzcarraldo’s epic portage sequence was so deep and thick that if you stepped into it with shoes you would step out of it without them, and so the crew effectively had no other option than to go barefoot during production. At a certain point along the way one of the path clearers had the bad luck of crossing paths with a poisonous snake, which predictably responded to the intrusion into its habitat of a bare human foot by biting it. Realizing, when he saw (and recognized) the snake, that if its potent venom entered his bloodstream he would die long before he could possibly hope to receive medical attention, the man saved his life the only way he could: by sawing his own foot off. I recall Herzog beaming with pride as he put the grisly exclamation point on his tale. Clearly, he admired the resourcefulness of the snake-bit native – but even more, it seemed, the story testified to the triumph of his own indomitable creative will over even the most hostile of opposing forces. Listening to him, I naturally could not help but wonder what had become of the man to whom that sawed-off foot had belonged, and whether he was as happy to have given it up, in retrospect, as Herzog was for him to have done so, and how much the money he earned for sawing that path and losing that foot was worth to him now. But I also found myself wondering what else had been destroyed for the sake of Herzog’s dream of hauling a 320-ton steamship over a hill deep in the Peruvian Amazon in order to create a movie scene in which somebody hauled a 320-ton steamship over a hill deep in the Peruvian Amazon.

Every day, the experts tell us, something in the range 140 animal species are eradicated for eternity and beyond, and no ecosystem on earth is denser with animal species than the Amazon – species, in many cases, that exist there, sometimes occupying just a few square feet of territory, and nowhere else in the universe. How many of those species, I asked myself amidst the perfunctory chorus of gasps and laughs from the audience, were lost forever, crushed beneath the enormous weight of Herzog’s steamship, so that he could make the film he wanted in just the way he wanted to make it? How many, I wondered, the miracle of whose existence would now forever remain a secret?

Herzog, for his part, is fond of claiming that, some three decades after the fact, the land over which he dragged his 320-ton steamship during the filming of Fitzcarraldo is once more exactly as it was before he arrived. But that is as impossible to know, of course, as it is to know what lies in the mind – and heart – of a chicken.


About the Author:

Eli S. Evans is a writer and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He writes regularly for magazines such as N+1, in the United States, and Quimera, in Spain, and has work forthcoming from Zg Press and in a collection of essays about the late writer and social theorist Monique Wittig. His academic research focuses on the intersections of modernity and postmodernity in twentieth century Spanish literature and philosophy.