CINEMA: In Werner Herzog We Trust

Werner Herzog The Collection

NEW YORK TIMES: You’ve talked in the past about your desire for your documentaries to convey ecstatic truth3 — or deeper truth — rather than what you’ve called “the truth of accountants.” Does anything about the need for ecstatic truth feel different now, at a time when even factual truth feels destabilized?

WERNER HERZOG: I’ll make it very simple. My witness is Michelangelo, who did the statue of the Pietà. When you look at Jesus taken down from the cross, it’s the tormented face of a 33-year-old man. You look at the face of his mother: His mother is 17. So let me ask: Did Michelangelo give us fake news? Defraud us? Lie to us? I’m doing exactly the same. You have to know the context in which you become inventive.

NEW YORK TIMES: Does ecstatic truth have any connection to morality?

WERNER HERZOG: Invented truth or facts can serve a dubious purpose. What I do serves a purpose, and that is to elate us, to lift us up, to give us a sense of something sublime. Ekstasis in ancient Greek means to step outside yourself. All of a sudden, we have a glimpse of something deeper that might be behind the images. Something like an ecstasy of truth.

NEW YORK TIMES: Did you ever find out who shot you?4

WERNER HERZOG: I was shot at various times. You mean here in Los Angeles?


WERNER HERZOG: No, I wasn’t interested.

NEW YORK TIMES: When you pulled Joaquin Phoenix from a car accident5 did you know it was him?

WERNER HERZOG:Yes, although he was upside down in this car, squished between airbags that had deployed and wildly trying to light a cigarette.

NEW YORK TIMES: I have to say, I like a lot of your films very much, but I think the most inspiring thing about you and your work is your ability to keep envisioning these fantastical projects and then actually make them. Is there any advice you can give about how to do that?

WERNER HERZOG: Do the doable. I do only the doable, including moving a ship over a mountain.18 But I’ve had very difficult shoots, and nobody knows about it. Much more difficult than “Fitzcarraldo.”Like “Fata Morgana.”19 I think it’s a very irrelevant criterion for Herzog to be, for example, the first barefoot runner on Mount Everest. I won’t be, because that would be stupid. But moving a ship over a mountain is not stupid. It’s a big, big, big metaphor, although I don’t know for what. I know it’s a memory that has been dormant inside many of us.

NEW YORK TIMES: It’s a collective dream that was manifested?

WERNER HERZOG: Yes, and I’m the one who articulated it. MORE

3 Herzog’s documentaries unabashedly and movingly feature invented scenes and dialogue.

4 During an interview with the BBC in 2006, Herzog was shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle. His response to the wound was a classic of resigned stoicism: ‘‘It’s not significant.’’

5 The actor described the 2006 incident: “I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog!’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out.”

18 Which, of course, is a central plot point in ‘‘Fitzcarraldo’’ (1982). Herzog and his crew figured out a way to drag a ship over a jungle mountain, though at a cost — multiple crew members were seriously injured.

19 Herzog’s 1971 film consists mostly of a series of images of the African desert. He has described how he and the crew were imprisoned during filming as a result of mistaken identity. He also contracted the parasitic disease bilharzia.