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Werner Herzog: Tarzan and madman

Charlie McCann listens to a genius of cinema

Charlie McCann | January 21st 2015

Werner Herzog would make a bad psychoanalyst. For one thing, he hates psychobabble, and has said many times that the damage it has wrought is on a par with the Spanish Inquisition. For another, he is a madman. Herzog is, after all, the man who dragged a steamship up a mountain in the Amazon, and the man who stewed and ate his own shoe, all in the name of cinema. He’s also the man who was shot and wounded during an interview, but carried on, saying the bullet was “not significant”. Herzog is wild, untamed, a “metaphysical Tarzan”, as the critic Pauline Kael once called him. But people don’t seem to mind. More and more have been turning to the 72-year-old Herzog for advice; in a recent interview with the Telegraph, he described it as “a huge avalanche of young people in particular, who actually want guidance”—not just about film-making, but about life’s grand themes: individuality, self-expression…chicken hypnosis.

Last Friday, a small avalanche of people—some 2,000—turned up at Central Hall, a marble behemoth of a church in London, for an event called “Guidance for the Perplexed”. Billed as a conversation between Herzog and Paul Holdengräber, the director of the LIVE series at the New York Public Library, it was the oral counterpart to “A Guide for the Perplexed”, a book of interviews with Herzog by the British writer Paul Cronin. (A revised and expanded version of Cronin’s “Herzog on Herzog”, published in 2002.)

When Herzog walked on stage he was greeted with rapturous applause. And as he settled into the conversation, you began to see why. His meandering stories, given deft prompts and steers by Holdengräber, were peppered with his famous dicta, and delivered with complete self-assurance and occasional flashes of disdain: “Only the shallow know themselves”; “The poet must not avert his eyes”; “Bring bolt-cutters”. He interleaved these with droll asides: “I am fluffy,” he said in his doleful German accent, “a fluffy husband”; “I am the only one in Hollywood who is clinically sane.” In one anecdote about an early Rolling Stones concert, thronged with hysterical teenage girls, Herzog recalled that, after the venue had emptied “one out of four seats was full of steaming pee. And I said to myself, ‘This is going to be big.’”

In the book, Cronin writes that there are many different Herzogs, many competing doppelgängers; there’s Herzog the Visionary, the Maverick, the Misanthrope. Last Friday, Herzog the Fluffy was there, but so too was the more familiar Herzog the Tarzan. It was him the audience was there to see. He didn’t become the most important film-maker alive, as Truffaut once called him, with over 60 documentaries, shorts and feature-length films to his name, by being fluffy. His stories—about life as a child in Bavaria during the second world war, hitchhiking around America as a young man, filming in some of the most challenging places on Earth—produced a portrait of a man who is fearless and almost totally self-reliant. (He set up his own production company aged 17 and, to this day, he says, draws up his own contracts, does his own laundry and most of his own taxes.)

Such certitude can rankle. At one point Holdengräber read a particularly vivid passage from an autobiography by Klaus Kinski, the mercurial actor who starred in several of Herzog’s films:

“He should be thrown alive to the crocodiles! The sting of a deadly spider should paralyse him! His brain should burst from the bite of the most poisonous of all snakes! Panthers shouldn’t slit his throat open with their claws, that would be too good for him! No. Big red ants should piss in his eyes, eat his balls, penetrate his asshole, and eat his guts! He should get the plague! Syphilis! Malaria! Yellow fever! Leprosy! In vain. The more I wish the most horrible of deaths on him and treat him like the scum of the earth that he is, the less I can get rid of him!”

Herzog’s reply? “It’s good prose.”

He wasn’t just being game. When Kinski was writing this invective, he came to Herzog for assistance. Herzog pulled out his pocket OED and together they looked for choice metaphors and better epithets. It turns out even his sworn enemies come to Herzog for guidance. That’s not so perplexing. Strip away the fluff and misanthropy, and you’re left with Herzog the Auteur, someone whose dedication to his craft knows no bounds. Some call that insanity; others devotion.

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