The Herzog Swoon

April 24, 2012

Today, Werner Herzog spoke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, later at Amherst College.

Here he is, explaining how he gingerly treated the Treadwell material used for shooting Grizzly Man.

Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with enraptured students and faculty, trying in vain to capture their vertiginous experience of seeing him in words/images. After all, he’s at the very least that German director about whom someone made so many viral videos. Celebrity cults have the tendency of rubbing me the wrong way though, so consider this blog post a measured response to the enthusiasm.

I attended because I am a German film specialist, and was pleasantly surprised that the talk at UMass was much better than the conversation he had at Amherst College back in 2006, when the privileged male students there thought they could “beat” him in rhetoric about fiction/reality in his films. (BTW: They lost.)

Topics of discussion included, but were not limited to:

• How fairly he deals with his subjects, particularly those who are borderline personalities (Treadwell, Kinski)
Into the Abyss as an American Gothic
• His romantic sensibility about the emergence of filmic moments
• His ruthless pragmatism regarding a tight editing schedule (“within 2 weeks” is his motto) and a low shooting ratio
• Virgil’s Georgics and the importance of thick description
• His own personal, evil style of acting
• How most people don’t survive in the film industry unless they can find a fast-paced rhythm to events/timelines/finances as he has
• How he doesn’t like art, nor the term “artist,” but rather surrounds himself with maps
• How students should “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read” (Incidentally, he sounded like a liberal arts college professor at this point.)
• How aerobics, yoga, art installations, and an excess of pain relief are all abominations with which society should reckon

In essence, Herzog shares the quality with Slavoj Zizek that he is one of the rare crowd-pleasers who can cater to students’ desire for “profound messages” and professors’ desire for academically grounded wit with equal aplomb. At the same time, however, one also notices that – beyond the hype for the man and his films – he has made his career as a filmmaker by keeping both his feet firmly planted on the ground (except in White Diamond, of course). Over and over again, he reiterated crude existential truisms: shoot your next damn film, don’t agonize over anything, meet your deadlines, if your footage is good – it’ll fit together, and so forth. This is advice that even his ideological arch-enemy Mike Figgis could not deny, and constituted almost the same thing that DEFA director Jürgen Böttcher communicated to us in the fall.

That is to say: don’t look to Werner Herzog for a message or even an inspiration. Look to your own subjective experiences and your pathos-filled reading of the world. Look to the subjectivity found in his films, and take a stand for or against or alongside it. This is a man whose oeuvre you must watch anyway, and his apparently enchanting presence should encourage you to look at more of his films. But Herzog knows no more secrets behind his films than you do. The viewer really is the missing link in his world.

Wild Blue Yonder is mostly long-winded crap with a few brilliant moments in a space capsule.
Woyzeck was made in such a short amount of time (8 days) that its spontaneity captures the fragmentary nature of Büchner’s play.
Stroszek remains his best work and will never be trumped by any of his other documentary-informed features.
Heart of Glass has inspired me in terms of larp and game design.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams hinges on his voiceover and our meta-level interpretations thereof.
Cobra Verde begins as a narrative about plantations and slavery, and ends as a musical.
Nosferatu shows us how small vampires can be in our big world.
Grizzly Man has something to do about Humans and Nature. I think it’s about Humans and Cameras.

…and so forth.
Watch his material.
Have an opinion.
If your opinion’s strong enough, make a piece of art in response that expresses it.
Or at least express it over coffee with friends.

Today’s event was called A Conversation with Werner Herzog. In my mind, Herzog exists only in conversation.

For more information about the director as well as interpretive aids, I suggest Brad Prager’s book or recent edited companion. If you read German, try Chris Wahl’s Lektionen in Herzog.

Watch the movies, but also read, read, read, read, read, read…

2 Responses to “The Herzog Swoon”

  1. I agree that his films are not always that wonderful. But I think what people like about him is that he has an immense inner drive and confidence that makes him unstoppable. He’s not a corporate “team player” or bureaucrat and never seems to need to compormise.

  2. guyintheblackhat said

    It’s as if I’m frustrated that we don’t have more people in the world like him, such that he’d be only one of many rather than the guy people horde and venerate.

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