WErner Herzog is about to turn 80 and is refashioning himself as a writer. He wishes it to be appreciated that this is what he always was – he is, after all, a virtuoso screenwriter as well as one of the greatest film-makers alive. He is talking from LA, where he now lives, about his new book by him, The Twilight World, a poetic hybrid, somewhere between dream and documentary. The book, which became a bestseller in the US within eight days of publication, is the story of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who faithfully defended Lubang, an island in the Philippines, for 29 years, believing himself to be under military orders long after the second world war had ended. Onoda could have stepped straight out of a Herzog film – or be about to step into one. Herzog makes no secret of having hoped to make a film about him, the problem being that Onoda, practiced at giving the world the slip, would not oblige, although he did volunteer, once the men got to know each other: “If anyone ever does a film about me, it should be you, Herzog san.”
Herzog has the sort of face that ages well – the younger man surfacing in the older man’s countenance. The impression he makes shifts as the conversation moves: he is patient and impatient, serious minded and humorous, overbearing and profound – used to calling the conversational shots. In the end, he persuaded himself that Onoda was better suited to a book than a film: the narrative is more about illusion than action and dominated by fatalism rather than conventional suspense. The prose poetry of the jungle is everywhere – camouflage becomes a psychic quality.
Herzog knows the jungle from several of his films, including his masterpiece, Fitzcarraldo. And he has always been drawn to people outside conventional society: Kaspar Hauser (in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), Timothy Treadwell (in Grizzly Man) and the characters played by Klaus Kinski in several of his films – the mad, bad and dangerous to know. His latest feature-length documentary, The Fire Withincenters on the volcanologists and film-makers Katia and Maurice Krafft, killed in an eruption on Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991. What emerges powerfully from revisiting the films, reading twilight world and talking to Herzog is that it is, above all, the uncommon, non-judgmental empathy he shows his characters that makes his work what it is.
Hiroo Onoda’s life seems like an honorable delusion and yet I felt a combination of admiration and pity as I read about him.
Hiroo Onoda became close to my heart very quickly. What I feel for him is respect. When you look at the “folly” of living a fictitious war, you don’t need to pity him because he had reasons to deduce the war was still on. When he saw hundreds of war planes flying west, he assumed the war was not over, although he was actually witnessing the Korean war. And when he saw the battleships passing the little island of Lubang, it was actually the Vietnam war.
How did he strike you as a character? And what did he make of you?
He was very hard to grasp. But what struck me was his dignity of him, quiet resolve and understanding of the world. When he returned to Japan, he was appalled that it had become a country of consumerism, that, in his words, it had “lost its soul”. He left Japan and started a cattle ranch in Brazil. I don’t know what he thought of me but he wanted to continue our contact. I am fascinated by how, at the end of his story of him, language comes apart and dissolves as existence on the island becomes meaningless.
What is it about the jungle that has such a continuing hold on your imagination?
It’s a landscape of the soul, of fever dreams and of imagination. In the jungle, you’re taken out of time. Onoda points out that present time is an illusion. For him, as he lifts his foot out of the mud that is in the past and as he sets his foot down in the jungle, that is the future. We construct a present only because our days and lives would otherwise be unliveable.
What is your own approach to time as you get older?
I live differently to how I did decades ago. As always, I do my job. I sleep long hours. I’m not a workaholic although my output has intensified: I have two new films out and two new books. I’ve been a writer all my life. Fifty years ago, I published Of Walking in Ice, which is still in print. I keep saying: watch out – I believe my writings may outlive my films. To explain it, I have this simple formula: the films are my voyage, writing is home.
In your films, time is allowed to be itself – the most unrushed moments are often the most memorable.
I allow the key moments the necessary time to breathe and sink in, so they become part of you. I do have patience but am impatient if a film is not good. You see young kids watching films on their cell phones. When they’re bored, they speed them up twice as fast. I understand that. Digitally, I edit very fast. I edited Grizzly Man, a complex film, in nine days. I can edit almost as fast as I can think.
In Grizzly Man, you declared: “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder.” Does harmony also exist?
Not out there in the universe. It’s too chaotic. You don’t need to be an expert, astronomer or astrophysicist to know that it is very messy, hostile and unliveable out there.
But what about harmony in your films? You seem Conradian, drawn to the heart of darkness – but are you also drawn to the light?
That sounds too new age to me – could I use a different term? Sometimes, I’ve the feeling a film of mine has balance. It has a certain equilibrium that probably has something in common with harmony but which I can’t easily describe. But I make such statements because Timothy Treadwell, in Grizzly Man, was about the Disney-isation of wild nature, the romanticizing of it. Quite often now, among those desperately trying to categorize me, there are people who claim I am a romanticist: I am not.
Watching the films starring Klaus Kinski again, I am reminded of what an uncannily brilliant actor he was. He is dead now but is there any sense in which, for all his devilry and turbulence of him, you miss him?
Not really because I had finished our working relationship right after green cobra and we didn’t have contact any more. But in the long run, yes, because he had some wonderful moments. His older daughter of him recently accused him of incest and rape and I have been approached: should I not now destroy my films with him, take them out of circulation? I’ve thought about this and have several answers. One is: do we have to remove all Caravaggio paintings from churches and museums because Caravaggio was a murderer?
The Twilight World is an exploration of what it means to be faithfully deluded. Do most of us lead lives of faithful delusion?
We live our lives in a fabricated theatre, all of us – we live through performances. Which is OK, it makes life bearable and it is very human. Our memories are shaped voluntarily or involuntarily according to our needs.
I am struck by how in Grizzly Man and to some extent The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, you are describing people who might possibly be mentally unwell but this is, refreshingly, never your starting point. Do we over-label people?
You are asking me big questions, but neither Kaspar Hauser nor Timothy Treadwell is even close to psychological abnormality. They are decent human beings.
Would it still be possible to make films like the ones you made in today’s safety-conscious climate?
I was never, contrary to rumours, a hazard-seeking, crazy stuntman. I am very methodical and safety-oriented. And my proof is that, in 80 films or so, not a single actor got injured.
Is there one film, above all others, would you choose to be remembered by?
No – it’s the sum of it. And with writing, the same thing.
Do you see your characters – and people in general – as fundamentally enigmatic?
There is a line in Woyzeck by Georg Büchner spoken by Kinski: “Every human being is an abyss, you get vertigo looking into it.” That is better than I could ever formulate.