“Pretending to be Werner Herzog”
Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog, 1982
Herzog’s original renown came from the innovative, unconventional, and often mysterious feature films he released in the ’70s and early ’80s—movies like Aguirre, Wrath of God; Stroszek; Even Dwarfs Started Small; and, most famously, Fitzcarraldo. It’s hard to remember now that there was a time, not just before Netflix but before VHS home video, when most movies were secrets. Movies with special images and weird dissonant ways of looking at the world could usually be seen only with great effort, typically when they came to the one cinema in town that catered to the arty college crowd; even the keenest movie fan might have to wait many years to see every film by a favorite director. Herzog’s were the kind of films that thrived in such a world. They may at times have been narratively oblique and frustrating, but they would contain moments—sometimes of great beauty and vision, and sometimes of surreal jarring oddness—that many who saw them would hold within and cherish for years.
The myth of his movies was compounded by the myth of Herzog himself; over time he became almost as famous for the stories of what happened during the making of his movies as for the movies themselves, particularly the two he made in the Peruvian Amazon, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo took several years to complete and was beset by obstacles, and its on-screen story—the tale of an ambitious delusional man with a crazy dream to carry a ship from one river to another over a jungle-covered mountain—seemed to also become the story of its making. (Characteristically, Herzog decided that the best way to film a ship being moved over a mountain deep in the rain forest was to actually move a ship over a mountain deep in the rain forest, and film it.) From such stories, and from the intense and obsessive man Herzog seemed to be in the interviews he would give back then, the perception grew that he might genuinely be crazy.
Even now, though he rejects the conclusion, Herzog seems to simultaneously encourage and discourage such talk. “I read something very beautiful,” he tells me. “A journalist writing on the Internet when I did the film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and David Lynch was the executive producer. And it said, beautifully, ‘The potentially insane David Lynch is finally teaming up with the certified insane Werner Herzog.’ I found this totally wonderful. I find it kind of humorous, and it appeals to a kind of opinion out there that I must be insane, because I moved a ship over a mountain and things like that. And of course my answer to that is: ‘I have seen many other colleagues in filmmaking, and I am the only one who is clinically sane.’ ”
Likewise, Herzog suggests that he has been making movies for the mass market all along. He has a phrase that he likes to use: the secret mainstream. “All my films are mainstream,” he asserts. “Sometimes people fail to notice that.”