Sunday, October 12, 2008

How Werner Herzog can change your life

Julie Gray has started (another) fun feature, a weekly movie discussion, on the Rouge Wave II networking site she set up. It's a good way to finally watch all those films on your list that you know you should have seen but just never got around to. And then talk with other screenwriters about what worked, what didn't, etc.

The first movie she chose was "Fitzcarraldo" by German director Werner Herzog. Unfortunately, I didn't get to watch for that discussion and it remains on my list of must-sees. But it did get me thinking about Herzog, the man, and his unique aesthetic. "Fitzcarraldo" is the story of a European man (played by Herzog's frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski) living in Peru who decides to fulfill his dream of building an opera house in the middle of the rainforest. One piece to achieving that goal involves dragging a 320-ton steamship over a mountain to ferry the valuable rubber that will fund the construction of the hall. When it came time to depict this in the film, Herzog refused to use special effects and actually dragged a real steamship over a mountain in Peru.

What makes "Fitzcarraldo" perhaps the seminal Herzog film is not just the extremes to which he went in making the movie -- once he got the ship over the mountain, he nearly crashed it to bits filming a sequence through river rapids; he fought so much with Kinski that a native chief offered to murder him for Herzog (who declined because he needed the actor to complete filming) -- but because it also exemplifies the dominant theme running throughout the director's body of work and his own life. Like so many of his subjects, Werner has rarely let anything stand in the way of his filmmaking obsession.

The BBC documentary "Beyond Reason" tracked down Herzog here in Los Angeles and is a good review of the highlights of his career. You can watch it in two parts online:

Watch Werner Herzog: Beyond Reason [Part 1] in Entertainment Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at

Watch Werner Herzog: Beyond Reason [Part 2] in Entertainment Videos  |  View More Free Videos Online at

In addition to footage of him getting shot by a pellet gun sniper (just a flesh wound to Werner), the documentary has lots of other great Herzogian moments. He admits that when filming Aguirre, Wrath of God (also in the Amazon rainforest), Kinski threatened to walk off the set until Herzog calmly promised to shoot him if he did. Kinski finished the movie. When he was starting out as a director, and needed a camera, he stole it from the Munich Film School and shot eleven pictures with it.

The anecdote that stuck most with me was Herzog's wager with fellow documentarian Errol Morris. Morris apparently was struggling to finish his first film. Werner challenged him, betting that Morris would never finish the movie or he (Herzog) would eat his shoe. In Herzog's words, he didn't think that his friend had the guts. Well, Morris had the guts and finished "Gates of Heaven." And, true to his word, Herzog cooked up his shoe and ate it. There is even a documentary about it, fittingly titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." Here is a recent conversation between Morris and Herzog about documentaries.

How I think Herzog can change the life of screenwriters, filmmakers, or anyone really, is to follow his philosophy of doing whatever it takes to bring one's dreams and vision to reality. To have "the guts" to do it no matter what obstacles -- even a mountain in the rainforest -- stand in one's way. As he points out in Beyond Reason, barriers to entry for filmmaking have become so low with digital technology that there really is no excuse to not just do it. So prove Werner wrong, make him eat his shoe. Go do it.


  • Hi! This is Chaia from The Script Department/The Rouge Wave. The footage of Herzog getting snipered in the middle of an interview is one of my favorite things of all time, edged out only slightly by his morose/angry characterization of the jungle as a "harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." I watch that YouTube clip whenever I need cheering up. Anyway, I just wanted to drop a line and say hey.

    By Blogger chaia, at 9:50 AM  

  • hey chaia!

    thanks for visiting. yes, that sniper scene is classic Herzog.

    between his experiences and Coppola's on Apocalypse Now, i'm pretty sure directors should just avoid jungle locations whenever possible

    we should take a Rouge Wave field trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology some day

    By Blogger Chris, at 8:33 PM  

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