“What happened was simply terrible”: Herzog with Klaus Kinski (right) on the set of his film “1987” film “Cobra” Verde” Photo: Allstar/BBC
Some time ago, in some newspapers, I came across a postcard from my mother dated September 6, 1942, written in pencil. It was pre-printed with a stamp of Adolf Hitler. The postmark clearly reads: Munich, center of traffic. The postcard is addressed to Mr. Prof. Dr. R. Herzog and his family, Grosshesselohe nr. Munich. To my grandfather, Rudolf Herzog, head of the family.
“Dear Father,” she writes. “I want to tell you that last night I gave birth to a boy. His name will be Werner. Best wishes, Liesel.” My name Werner was an act of defiance against my father, who wanted me to be called Eberhard. At the time of my birth, my father was a soldier in France, not on any front, but, since he knew how to hide, in the rear, where supplies, especially food rations, were distributed. He brought me into the world during his last, no doubt hard-earned vacation, shortly after the new year. My mother later found out that he spent the first part of his ten-day vacation with some other woman, and then introduced himself.
Just two weeks after I was born, Munich suffered one of the first Allied bombings. My mother found me in a cradle, covered in a thick layer of broken glass, bricks and rubble. I was unharmed, but my mother, in a panic, grabbed me and my older brother Tilbert, left the city and fled into the mountains to Sahrang, undoubtedly the most remote place in all of Bavaria, in a narrow valley near the Austrian border. . That's where I grew up.
In Sakhrang we spent most of our lives outdoors; our mother wouldn't think twice about exposing us for four hours at a time, even in the dead of winter. When darkness fell, we stood and muttered something at the door, all our clothes were covered with snow. At exactly five o'clock the door swings open and Mom quickly sweeps the snow off of us with a broom before we are allowed inside.
We only had to be really careful during the mating season of the deer. A cyclist was attacked by an angry deer and disappeared under a narrow bridge, pursued by the crazed animal. It took the crash of empty cans to drive him away. There were also terrible encounters. One day in broad daylight – my brother witnessed this – the entire slope behind the house suddenly came to life with caresses flowing down towards the stream. I don’t think it was a dream, although there is always such a possibility.
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Our childhood was archaic. We had no running water; we had to take it out from the pump with a bucket, and in winter it often froze. There was an outbuilding with a toilet, a piece of board with a hole. Since the outbuilding attached to the main house was not insulated or even sealed, there were often snowdrifts in the toilet, so my mother placed a bucket in the hallway. We used the bucket as a toilet, but when it got colder, all its contents froze into one solid lump. We could only keep warm in the kitchen, where there was a wood-burning fireplace.
The tiny six-by-six-foot room next to the kitchen where my brother and I slept in bunk beds was unheated. We didn’t have mattresses either—my mother couldn’t afford them—so she filled burlap bags with dried ferns; but the ferns, cut with a scythe, had tips as hard as sharpened pencils, and when we moved in our sleep, we woke up every now and then. Dried ferns also tend to shrink into hard clumps; Thanks to these humps, I never slept on a flat surface during my entire childhood.
Above the top bunk, right under the ceiling, there was a board on which apples were stored. The room always smelled of these apples. In winter they shriveled and also froze, but after thawing they were still edible.
My brother Till and I grew up in extreme poverty, but we didn't even know we were poor except maybe for the first two or three years after the war ended. We were just always hungry and my mother couldn't provide us with enough food. We ate dandelion leaf salad; my mother prepared syrups from rowan and fresh pine shoots; the former was more of a home remedy for coughs and colds, while the latter was a substitute for sugar.
Once a week, the village baker brought a long loaf of bread, bought with our coupons. With the point of a knife, my mother made a mark on it for each day, from Monday to Sunday, leaving each of us about a slice of bread. When hunger became very severe, each of us was given a piece from the next day's ration, because my mother hoped that something would turn up during this time, but usually the bread was gone by Friday, and Saturday and Sunday were especially bad.
My deepest memory of my mother, imprinted in my brain, is the moment when my brother and I grabbed her skirts and whined from hunger. With a sudden jerk she pulled free, turned around, and on her face appeared an expression of anger and despair that I had never seen before or since. She said quite calmly, “Look, boys, if I could cut this out of my ribs, I would cut it out of my ribs, but I can't. Is everything okay?” At that moment we learned not to cry. I am disgusted by the so-called culture of complaints.
As a child, there was something dark in me. I don’t remember it, but they tell me that more than once hit people with a rock in my hand; my mother was worried about me. I was quiet and reserved, but there was something bubbling inside me that would bother an adult.
It took a family disaster for me to get my temper under control. I was probably thirteen or fourteen then, and we were living in Munich, when I quarreled with Till. We were as close as brothers and sisters can be and remain, but there were also terrible quarrels and violent fights between us. This was considered natural and acceptable. But during one violent argument – as I recall, it was about caring for our pet hamster – I was so furious that I stabbed my brother with a knife. I hit him once in the wrist when he tried to fight me off, and once in the upper thigh. In an instant, the room was flooded with blood.
I was deeply shocked by my behavior. I instantly realized that I would have to make immediate and profound changes to my lifestyle, and that this would require strict self-discipline. What happened was simply too terrible. I caused a deep rift that could have destroyed us as a family. At a short family meeting, we decided, since there were no wounds upon a thorough examination of the grave, not to take my brother to the hospital for examination, which would certainly have led to legal questions. We bandaged him, wiped away the blood, and I felt sick. I still feel it in my bones.
Because the wounds were never stitched, Till's scars are clearly visible. I took control of myself through absolute self-discipline. Much of my character to this day is defined by pure discipline. But there is still a rude, often humorous correspondence between Till and me, which sometimes makes our ongoing closeness confusing to outside observers.
Several years ago we had a family reunion on the coast of Spain, where my brother lived at the time. At his invitation and expense, we spent a wonderful evening at a fish restaurant. My brother, who was sitting next to me, hugged me as I studied the menu. Something began to smoke; I felt a slight prick in my back and suddenly realized that he had set my shirt on fire with his lighter. I ripped it off and everyone was horrified, but the two of us laughed out loud at a joke that no one else found funny. Someone lent me a T-shirt for the rest of the evening, and a splash of prosecco cooled the small patch of sore skin on my back.
Werner Herzog prepares for an interview
This is an edited excerpt from Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A Memoir © Werner Herzog 2023, English translation © Michael Hofmann 2023, published by The Bodley Head 19 October online £25. To pre-order, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk