When it comes to badass stories, director Werner Herzog might be even more legendary than Chuck Norris—with one important difference: The tales about Herzog are true. In honor of the director's latest film, Queen of the Desert, which just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, here are a few fun facts about the director of Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo, Into the Abyss, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, among many others.
1. TO BECOME A FILMMAKER, HE STOLE A CAMERA FROM A FILM SCHOOL.
Ask Herzog how he became a filmmaker, and he’ll tell you that he made himself one—by stealing a 35mm camera from the Munich Institute for Film Research (now the Munich Film School). "It was a very simple 35mm camera, one I used on many other films, so I do not consider it a theft," he said. "For me, it was truly a necessity. I wanted to make films and needed a camera. I had some sort of natural right to this tool. If you need air to breathe, and you are locked in a room, you have to take a chisel and hammer and break down a wall. It is your absolute right." He used the camera to make his first short film, as well as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and eight other movies.
2. HE WORKED AS A BALL BOY AT A TENNIS COURT SO THAT HE COULD BUY A BOOK.
Long before he made a film about the Chauvet Cave in Southern France (2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams), Herzog—whose grandfather was an archeologist—was fascinated by cave drawings, thanks to a book he spotted in the window of a bookstore. “It was in a display out of reach,” he told the AV Club. “I didn’t dare to walk into the bookstore, and I didn’t have the money to buy it, so I worked as a ball boy at tennis courts for quite a while. I would sneak by every week ... and pray that nobody had bought the book. Apparently I thought it was the only one.” Herzog still has the book today, though he reports that it’s “really very mediocre. It’s a very stupid book. I mean, popular science and quite stupid.”
3. HE ONCE WALKED FROM MUNICH TO PARIS.
Herzog is a big fan of walking. “I’m not someone who jogs or hikes, nor someone who travels on foot all the time,” he told Offscreen. “I am lazy like everyone else. I walk only for very specific reasons.” So when his mentor, film critic Lotte H. Eisner, fell gravely ill, Herzog decided to walk from Munich to Paris to see her; he believed that the effort of walking in the harsh winter would save her life. With a some money, a map, a compass, and a duffel bag, Herzog made the trip in three months. He kept a diary of the experience, Of Walking in Ice, which was published in German in 1978 and in English in 1980.
He further elaborated on his love of walking in the book Herzog on Herzog. “Traveling on foot has nothing to do with exercise,” he said. “[W]hen I am walking I fall deep into dreams. I float through fantasies and find myself inside unbelievable stories. I literally walk through whole novels and films, and football matches. I do not even look at where I am stepping, but I never lose my direction.”
4. HE’S EATEN HIS OWN SHOE.
When Herzog makes a bet, he accepts the consequences—at least that’s what we can deduce from the time he said he’d eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever finished his documentary Gates of Heaven. Morris did, indeed, finish the film, and Herzog, true to his word, ate his shoe at its premiere. Les Blank made the spectacle into a short documentary called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which you can watch here.
5. HE’S BEEN SHOT.
Herzog was famously shot with an air rifle while doing an interview with the BBC in a Los Angeles park—and the whole thing was caught on film. (The filmmaker pulled up his shirt to reveal the bloody wound, telling the interviewer, “it’s not significant.”) But that’s not the only time he’s been shot at: In a video Q&A for his movie My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, the filmmaker revealed that “I was shot at more seriously in my life while filming crossing illegally a border from Honduras into Nicaragua … the moment itself is unpleasant, but there’s a great exhilaration to be shot at unsuccessfully. And I think Winston Churchill said the same thing as a young man, because he was shot at as well.”
6. HE RESCUED JOAQUIN PHOENIX AFTER A CAR CRASH.
In January 2006, Joaquin Phoenix was driving in Hollywood when he ran off the road and flipped the car. Still in the wreckage, he started to light a cigarette—but stopped when he heard tapping on the window and saw a man standing outside. That man was Werner Herzog, who urged Phoenix to relax. “I am relaxed,” Phoenix replied. “No, you’re not,” the man said. Gasoline was leaking into the car, so Herzog broke a window and helped Phoenix out of the wreck. It sounds like an urban legend, but it’s totally true: Herzog recounted the story during a Q&A promoting My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Someone turned his answer into a short film, which you can watch above.
7. HE CRASHED MEL BROOKS’ MEETINGS.
Herzog told Vulture that “a long time ago,” he and Brooks “connected in a way that nobody expected. We were really friends. At the end of the ’70s. I would walk into his offices unannounced. He would be with three or four attorneys having a discussion and I would just nod to him and sit down at the same table and disappear 10 minutes later.”
8. HE KNOWS HOW TO HYPNOTIZE CHICKENS.
Herzog is no fan of these feathery fowl. “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity,” he said in Herzog on Herzog. “It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.”
But the birds do have one good quality, and that’s that they’re easily hypnotized. Herzog has done it himself for some his films, and he explained the process in a Reddit AMA: “Calm the chicken down. Put its beak on the floor, and then, with determination, draw a line of chalk away from it. Release the chicken, and you will see it will be hypnotized.”
9. HE ONCE ACCIDENTALLY ATE MARMALADE LACED WITH MARIJUANA.
“I don’t need any drug to step out of myself. I don’t want them and I do not need them,” the filmmaker told Vulture. Still, he did get high accidentally once, while eating pancakes at the home of composer Florian Fricke (of the band Popol Vuh). “[H]e had pancakes and marmalade,” Herzog recalled. “And I smeared the marmalade and he started chuckling and chuckling. And I ate it and it tasted very well and I wanted another one and took another good amount of the marmalade and the marmalade had weed in it. He didn’t even tell me. I was so stoned that it took me an hour to find my home in Munich. I circled the block for a full hour until finding my place. So I have had the experience. … [I]t wasn’t terrifying. It was just weird. Because I have a good sense of orientation.”
10. HE MADE A CAMEO IN AN EPISODE OF THE FINAL SEASON OF PARKS & REC.
He played Ken Jeggings, a homeowner trying to offload his “haunted and disgusting” house to move to Orlando “to be closer to Disney World.” “I’ve never seen the show,” he told the Guardian before it aired, “but I hope they kept some of it.” The director actually has a pretty long acting resume: He’s lent his voice to a Simpsons’ character and an episode of American Dad, and has appeared in a number of films, including The Grand, Mister Lonely, and Jack Reacher. “I am the only one who is really frightening in that film,” he told Vice. “I was paid handsomely and I was worth my money.”
11. HE ONLY OWNS ONE SUIT AND ONE PAIR OF SHOES.
“I do not have and I do not need material things,” he said. “My material world is extremely small and limited. I own one single suit that I’m wearing right now and in the last 25 years I’ve never had another suit. And the shoes that I’m wearing I’ve been wearing for 3 years and they are my only pair of shoes. I need to replace them because they are starting to come apart.”
12. AND HE DOESN’T HAVE A CELL PHONE.
“I’m probably the last holdout,” he said in a Q&A. “It’s fine that my attorney has a cell phone and my assistant director has a cell phone, but I don’t want to be available all the time. It has been a blessing that I don’t have a cell phone.”
13. HE’S NOT A FAN OF TRUMAN CAPOTE.
While out promoting his film Into the Abyss, which featured inmates on death row, Vice asked the filmmaker about comparisons to Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood. Some believed that Capote changed facts in the non-fiction book about two men who commit a gruesome crime to suit his story. “We have to be careful because Truman Capote, in a way, exploited his subjects,” Herzog said. “I have always been very suspicious about Truman Capote, because for years and years he did not publish the book, claiming that it wasn’t finished. He just waited until both of them were actually executed, witnessed their execution, and wrote a final chapter about it. That is kind of suspicious to me. The book is very well written, although, may I say something? My film is deeper, and my film is better.”
14. HE MADE ROGER EBERT WATCH THE ANNA NICOLE SHOW.
Though Herzog doesn’t consume much pop culture, he did tell Vice that “I look with great interest at phenomena like WrestleMania. Or I used to watch the Anna Nicole Smith Show because there was a very strange cultural shift there.” He found the show so interesting that he even recommended it to film critic Roger Ebert. “I said to him, ‘Roger, you have to watch the Anna Nicole Smith show,’” he recounted in Interview magazine. “There's something big about it, a big shift in the wider public's concept of female beauty, in how vulgarity is invading everyday life more than ever before. And he said, ‘No, never in my life.’ But then he watched it.”
15. HE VISITS A DAM IN ITALY EVERY FEW YEARS.
Every four or five years, Herzog makes a pilgrimage to Vajont Dam, near Longarone in Italy. Fifty-two years ago, a landslide in the area caused a megatsunami that overtopped the dam and wiped out the town, killing 2000 people. “I have studied the place over and over,” Herzog told the AV Club. “I do my pilgrimages to the place. At its base, [the dam] is something like a hundred feet thick. ... The whole thing is about 180 meters at its highest, and it withstood the landslide coming into it. It’s still intact, and most of it will be intact hundreds of thousands of years from now. ... Whenever I’m not too far away, I love to go there. It was such a monumental folly, and it was foreseen by a geologist who warned and warned, but nobody would pay attention. Each time I return, I discover different aspects of it. It’s one of the great human-created catastrophes. It’s going to be a monument for hundreds of thousands of years.”