To celebrate the launch of his online MasterClass on filmmaking, director Werner Herzog participated in a Reddit AMA. Here are a few things we learned.
1. HE DIDN’T KNOW MOVIES WERE A THING UNTIL HE WAS 11 YEARS OLD.
In an answer to a question about how his moviemaking philosophy has changed since he first started making films at the age of 19, Herzog explained that he “didn't even know that cinema existed until I was 11.” He was introduced to the art form when “a traveling projectionist arrived at the schoolhouse in the mountains in Bavaria.” (The self-taught director, in an answer to another question, said that “since I came into contact with cinema fairly late in my youth, I always had the feeling I was sort of the inventor of cinema itself. It sounds kind of crazy or not right, as if I was not right in my mind, but until today, I couldn't care less about the rules of anything since I developed it all on my own.”)
Another fun fact: Herzog didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17. “Nobody can believe it nowadays.”
2. HE DOESN’T THINK THAT CHEAPER TECHNOLOGY HAS ADVANCED THE ART OF FILMMAKING.
“Has photography very subtly improved because we do have 3.5 billion people who use their cell phones and take photos and all sorts of things?” Herzog wrote. “I don't believe that the art of photography has improved much. It's the same thing as its value in filmmaking. I do not believe that we have found the completely hidden unknowns who all of [a] sudden, who through cheap digital cameras, make their movies. They would emerge no matter what, whether they have a cell phone or a video camera. However, I must say, we have seen some good surprises, and sometimes you see them on YouTube of all places. But not really that it has advanced the art of filmmaking much.”
3. HE DOESN’T HAVE A HIGH OPINION OF BIOPICS.
When a Redditor asked why Herzog chose to focus on Gertrude Bell’s romances rather than her life in general in Queen of the Desert, the director responded that “You see biopics normally do not work when in movies.” Though there are exceptions—Herzog named Ghandi—and biopics on TV are fine, he wanted to make “a big epic feature film … A lot of the film is about poetry and translating poetry. It's a lot about solitude, it's a lot about empty spaces, it's a lot about music. These elements are more interesting than just a simple biopic. That has created some controversy but I must say I don't really care … It's a film that set its course from the very beginning. Don't do a biopic, go for what's much more fascinating.”
4. HE CAN'T CHOOSE A FAVORITE FILM.
“Well, you cannot really ask a mother, ‘Which one of your children are you most proud of,’” he wrote. “You love them all, I love all of them, my 72 or so films. And those who are the weakest—some of them are weak and some of them have defects, where they limp—and I defend them more than the others. So, I'm proud of them all.”
5. HE DOESN’T THINK YOU READ ENOUGH.
When answering a broad question about what of humanity’s capabilities or history terrifies him the most, Herzog answered that “we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are.” Doing so, he said, would help us make educated choices about things like trusting the logic of self-driving cars.
“We should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books,” he wrote. “Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that's how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life.”
6. HE HAS SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WHAT HE THINKS YOU SHOULD READ.
Herzog himself reads “a lot of history, much of it from antiquity; ancient Roman and ancient Greek historians.” He makes all students in his four-day seminar, which he calls Rogue Film School, read The Peregrine. The book, which was written by “a completely obscure British writer” and published in 1967, is, Herzog wrote, “one of the most wonderful books I've ever read in my life ... It has prose of a quality that we have not seen since the short stories of Joseph Conrad. And secondly, what every filmmaker or every artist should have in him or her, is an incredible attention to something you love. In this case, a man watches Peregrine survive the brink of extinction, and the passion, the unbelievable passion for what he sees and how he deals with the birds, is just unbelievable. And that's how you should meet the world.”
The director advises that you should “read books that everybody thinks are not that interesting.” He called the Warren Commission’s report on the JFK assassination “one of the finest crime stories you can ever lay your hands on, and it has a logic in it that is phenomenal.” He also recommends Bernal Díaz del Castillo's The Conquest of New Spain. “He was a frontman of the conquest of Mexico, and as an old man he wrote his biography, and it's filled full of unbelievably strange detailed, and I highly advise to read this,” Herzog wrote. “So, I could give you 5000 more books but let's stop it right there.”
7. YOU LEARN WILD THINGS WHEN YOU ATTEND HIS FILM SCHOOL.
Herzog’s MasterClass goes into the more traditional aspects of filmmaking—how to deal with crazy actors and manage finances, for example—while his Rogue Film School focuses more on guerrilla filmmaking techniques. “I will teach you how to pick a safety lock, I will teach you how to forge a shooting a document, allowing you to film and things like that,” he wrote.
8. HE STILL HAS THE RIFLE FROM THE INCIDENT WITH KLAUS KINSKI.
While they were in the jungle filming Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) in the early 1970s, lead actor Klaus Kinski went a little crazy. It had been “a tough day at work,” Herzog wrote in the AMA, and he and some extras from the film crammed into a hut to drink beer, play cards, and unwind. The noise infuriated Kinski, who, according to Herzog, “was on a hill nearby, all alone, and he wanted to have his absolute quiet around him. He screamed and yelled, and fired three shots from his Winchester.” The director rushed out of the hut and wrestled the gun away from the actor. “There's no feeling, there's no thinking, I just rushed and wrestled the gun away from Kinsky [sic] and that was that,” Herzog said. “Take the rifle from him, no feelings, no thinkings, nothing. Just stop that bozo.” Thankfully, no one was killed—“he only shot the middle finger away from one of the guys,” Herzog wrote—and the director still has the gun: “It's one of my prized possessions.”
9. IF HE COULD TEACH ANYTHING OTHER THAN FILMMAKING, IT WOULD BE MATH.
“But very, very abstract works, like nothing but theory,” the director wrote. “I'd like to be into astronomy, I'd like to be in archaeology, I'd like to be into volcanoes. In fact, I'm right now finishing a big film on volcanoes. It's called Into the Inferno. It's such a fascinating field of research.”
10. HE “WOULD LOVE TO LEARN” HOW TO PLAY THE CELLO.
“But you see I'm too old for that, you start learning it before you are 10,” he wrote. “This has alluded me, it's a big gap in my life, a void. Let’s say I did learn the cello with the ease of how we are breathing. Today I would probably have been a teacher of music.”
11. ONE MOMENT IN GATES OF HEAVEN MADE HIS JAW DROP.
When one Redditor asked Herzog if there were “moments in cinema that have been so compelling you almost injured yourself,” Herzog brought up a moment in his friend Errol Morris’s documentary, Gates of Heaven. “There is one young man who looks into the camera and he says ... ‘Well death is for the living and not for the dead, so much.’ Then all of a sudden the picture behind him falls off the wall,” Herzog wrote. “It's just something where you can't believe your luck. Look out for those moments. They do not change the course of my life, they do not change anything, but these moments do make my life better.”
Famously, Herzog bet Morris that if he ever finished Gates of Heaven and showed it in a public theater, he’d eat his own shoe. Morris did it, and Herzog ate his shoe, washing bits of it down with a beer.
12. FOR HERZOG, SCREENWRITING HAPPENS VERY QUICKLY.
Herzog said that he doesn’t so much find ideas as happen upon them. “Very often, films come with uninvited guests, I keep saying like burglars in the middle of the night,” he wrote. “They're in your kitchen, something is stirring, you wake up at 3 a.m. and all of the sudden they come wildly swinging at you.”
Eventually, “the situation makes it clear that this is so big, I have to make a film.” Then, the writing happens quickly and furiously:
“When I write a screenplay, I write it when I have a whole film in front of my eyes, and it's very easy for me, and I can write very, very fast. It's almost like copying. But of course sometimes I push myself; I read myself into a frenzy of poetry, reading Chinese poets of the 8th and 9th century, reading old Icelandic poetry, reading some of the finest German poets like Hölderlin. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of my film, but I work myself up into this kind of frenzy of high-caliber language and concepts and beauty. And then sometimes I push myself by playing music; in my place it would be, for example, a piano concerto, and I play it and I type on my laptop furiously.”
13. HE’S A FAN OF CAT VIDEOS.
When a Redditor asked him what his favorite animal is, the director first picked a falcon. Where he lives, he wrote, “there's a tall tree in the distance, and there's a wonderful falcon out there.” He also likes hummingbirds and cats, “because they're so strange sometimes. And you see them on the internet, the crazy cat videos for example, and I'm a fan of them.”
But if there’s one animal he can’t stand, it’s chickens. “They are so stupid,” he wrote. “And it's easy to hypnotize them. Put their beak on the ground, hold them and draw a quick, straight line away from their beak onto the ground, onto the pavement, and they'll stay there frozen and hypnotized! Unfortunately, this is not in my MasterClass. I think there are certain things you cannot learn in my MasterClass.”
14. HE THINKS THAT PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LEARN ABOUT THE WORLD SHOULD TRAVEL BY FOOT.
“The world reveals itself to one who travel[s] on foot,” the director wrote. He recounted a time when he was at the Johnson Space Center, where he was set to talk to five astronauts who’d been to space. They were sitting in a semi-circle, and Herzog wrote that his heart sank—he didn’t know what he should say or do. “I looked around and looked into their faces and all of a sudden I had the feeling, I understand these people,” he wrote. “I understand the heart of these men and these women. I said ‘Since I was a child, when I learned how to milk a cow with my own hands, I can tell that since I've traveled on foot and in the meadow first you milk a cow to have something to drink. I know by looking at faces, who is able to milk a cow.’ I looked at the pilot and said ‘You sir!’ and he burst out in smiles and says ‘Yes, I can milk a cow.’ Somehow when you make films, you understand the heart of men. In a way you cannot learn it, the world has to teach you. The world does it in its most intense and deepest way when you when you encounter it by traveling on foot.”