“In general, I was a danger to others”: director Werner Herzog Photo: Christopher Wahl/Kontour RA
Werner Herzog does not want to compare himself with Ernest Hemingway or Joseph Conrad—the “immortals,” as he calls them—but he has no doubt about the literary merits of his new memoir, Every Man for Himself and God Against All. “There is prose of such intensity that you don’t see anywhere in literature today,” he tells me in the solemn, aphoristic tone familiar from the voice-overs of his many documentaries. “Nobody writes prose like I do.”
The great German filmmaker, whose masterpieces span half a century of cinema, including the 1972 drama Aguirre, the Wrath of God and the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, decided to tell his own story on this page. The result (translated into English by Michael Hofmann) is a memorable, shocking encounter with a man who has experienced life at its most extreme. It takes us from the childhood trauma of carrying a friend with horrific head injuries to safety – “The sound of the collision still shakes me even now” – to smuggling guns across the US border into Mexico. However, he insists that his choice of medium is not an aberration: “Forty years ago I said that my writing, my prose and my poetry, would probably live longer than my films. I kept saying this, but I didn’t pay attention.”
The Duke is in Austria, in a darkened room (we are talking via Zoom), and it feels as if he is personally reproaching me for this group. failure to take into account. I've interviewed him in person before and it's a unique experience; There is nowhere to hide.
Last time I admitted that I did not know that Moses was a murderer. “It's in the Bible, fool,” he said with undisguised contempt. “I really don’t care,” he says this time, when I ask the question he asked the last communist leader of the USSR in Meeting Gorbachev (2018): What should be on your tombstone? “I hope there will never be a tombstone for me. In any case, the descendants will do their job. I won’t be around.”
Now 81, Herzog looks undiminished by age, as prolific as ever. His latest drama, the thought-provoking Family Affair (2019), which he filmed in Tokyo without a filming permit, was, he says, “financed and produced out of my own pocket.” Likewise, in my 2022 documentary Theater of Thought, “I just rolled up my sleeves, made money and financed it. I never complained about it.”
"Nobody noticed his presence": Klaus Kinski in film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972). Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
In Every Man for Himself and God Against All, he tells how he and his older brother Tilbert grew up in extreme poverty in the Alpine village of Sahrang, “by far the most remote place in all of Bavaria,” after his mother Liesel fled Munich . after the Allied bombing in 1942. She rescued the newborn Werner from his cradle, where he lay unharmed, “covered in a thick layer of broken glass, bricks and rubble.” In the mountains, he describes his mother's anger and despair as her sons hung by her skirts, whining with hunger. “At that moment we learned not to cry,” he writes. “The culture of complaints disgusts me.”
So when he hears “very, very successful Hollywood directors complain all the time that the film industry won't recognize their genius or produce their next project,” I keep saying, “Roll up your sleeves and do it.” Anyway”.
His father, Dietrich, a German soldier in France during World War II, was an ardent National Socialist in the early years of the Nazi movement. His mother, he said, “was disillusioned quite early”; knowing about the Holocaust “was very bitter for [her]; I don't describe it in the book. This is something that belongs only to me and her.
Nosferatu the Vampire (1979) Photo: ZDF/Werner Herzog
However, for many years after the war, his father “was still upset that Germany had been defeated.” When Dietrich decided not to return to her young family, Werner was glad. “I was certainly glad we didn’t have a drill sergeant in the house telling us what to do.” This is not surprising: as a child, Duke was fearless and felt almost no restrictions. “In general, I was a danger to others,” he writes.
He describes a fight with his brother in which Werner attacked him with a knife, after which “the room was flooded with blood.” Where did his violent character go? “I made him disappear,” he says. “You have to. I don't want to look deep inside myself, but it's just a matter of discipline.”
I ask him if the book deviates from the concept of “ecstatic truth” he uses in his films, what “facts” can be changed into in the search for deeper truths. In his memoirs, he says: “Everything necessary has been fact-checked and confirmed by my brothers and sisters.” (Like Tilbert, he has a half-sister and brothers from his parents' subsequent relationships.) However, sometimes his memory, “like everyone else's, is subtly shaped by the past.”
Besides, he adds, of the stories told in the book, “a lot of things were always public.” He recalls a BBC television interview in 2006 during which he was shot in the stomach with an air rifle, and on camera described the wound as “inconsequential”. “No one will believe it, but it was recorded on tape. Whether you doubt it or not, I don’t care.”
When Werner was 13, Liesel and her children returned to the apartment building in Munich where “crazy Klaus Kinski” lived. The actor, who died in 1991, is a strong presence in the memoir, as he is in such Herzog films as “The Vampire Nosferatu” (1979) and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982). We read about how he attacked a critic with a hail of potatoes and smashed his bathroom in a rage. Did Herzog find an outlet for his cruelty through Kinski?
Werner Herzog in Peru on the set of the film “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) Photo: Jean-Louis Atlan
“Kinski was not violent,” he counters, before admitting that there may have been some “performative violence” and, come to think of it, actual violence, “only apparently against women, including his daughter. It's a very, very dark side that I recently became aware of.” I mention the report that in 1950, in a clinic in northern Germany, Kinski was diagnosed as a psychopath. Does the Duke believe this? “I don’t care who he was. I only care about how he was on screen. There is no one who has his presence. And no one had his intensity, with very few exceptions, such as the young Marlon Brando.”
Their tumultuous relationship was the subject of Herzog's 1999 film My Best Enemy, in which he chronicled the terrifying battle of wills that began when Kinski played the manically obsessed 16th-century conquistador Lope de Aguirre in 1972. The Duke revisits the filming of Aguirre in Peru. in his memoirs. I ask about the infamous incident where he threatened to kill Kinski and then turn the gun on himself if the actor pulled out of the film; If Kinski had left, would he have followed through? “Kinski knew I wasn’t kidding,” he says. “It was very quiet—I mean in a very low voice; he screamed like crazy.”
Although the memoir includes several brushes with death—in a rodeo ring, for example, or on a frozen mountaintop—“I don’t take danger,” Herzog insists. “I'm very careful. If prudence has a name, it is mine.” Still, watch Aguirre's stunning opening scene – in which a group of conquistadors descend a high Andean pass and then brave the rapids of a huge Amazon tributary on wooden rafts tied together – and it's impossible to imagine Hollywood reproducing such a genuine sense of life-threatening danger. today, no matter what brave things Tom Cruise did in the Mission: Impossible movies. “Well, there’s something deeply authentic about it,” Herzog says. “And I would like to remind you that I have experienced dangers myself. I’m climbing this almost vertical cliff where the whole army is zigzagging down.” (He says he uses the word “crawl” for his poetry, as Wordsworth did.) “And I tested the rapids alone, with two experienced paddlers, and I knew it could be done with cameras and actors.”
“I'm not going to die for you, Werner”: Christian Bale in “Rescue Dawn” (2006) Photo: TCD /Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo
Herzog himself worked with Cruise on 2012's Jack Reacher, in which he played the coldly dark antagonist: “I nailed it,” he says. In fact, the memoir's only detour into cliché may be that Herzog writes that he was impressed by the actor's “absolute professionalism”—and that's pretty much the only thing anyone ever said about Cruise. What about his Scientology? Does Herzog see what he calls “a distant echo of divinity or transcendence…evident in many of my films” in Cruise's chosen religion? “Don’t ask me that,” he says. “Like freedom of speech, there is such a thing as freedom of choice of religion… So don't get too hung up on Tom Cruise being a Scientologist.”
Instead, I ask how he deals with actors' vanity. “I struggle with this, but I remain silent,” he tells me. “The only thing that matters is how I can make them the best they can be on screen.” Judging by Christian Bale's reaction to Herzog's 2006 war film Rescue Dawn filming in the Thai jungle – “I'm not going to die for you, Werner” – this may require them to press hard. According to him, he and Bale keep in touch, albeit freely. “We have very deep respect and Christian would really like me to do another film with him. Like Nicolas Cage, he would die to do another movie with me. He says the best movie he ever acted in was “Bad Lieutenant,” Herzog says, referring to his 2009 film that starred Cage. “I make them the best. All of them.”
"I make them the best": Bad Lieutenant: Port Call New Orleans (2009)
Herzog himself appears in Disney's The Mandalorian as the sinister character “The Client”, perhaps proof of his enduring cult appeal. You can find an endless number of parodies of his voice online; Alexander Skarsgård played a version of him in the star-studded American parody series Documentary Now! “Well, let's face it: when you listen to my accent, it makes sense that I'm inviting parody,” he says. “I easily learned to live with at least 30 doubles and voice imitators who even give life advice to the confused, so I consider them my free puppets. Let them fight there. I know who I am.”
He is laughing. It's easy to forget that dark humor permeates all of Herzog's films, from the policeman radioing that he “can't stop the dancing chicken” at the end of Stroszek (1977), to his own much-imitated “But Why?” speech of a penguin heading towards the mountains of Antarctica in the film “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007).
The film earned Herzog an Academy Award nomination in 2009, his only one in a career spanning more than 70 films. He says he is amazed when he looks at them all, listed in the appendix to his book. “I ask myself: was it really me? Or did I make this up? Was it my brother who secretly did it and I talked myself into doing it?” His failure to win an Oscar doesn't bother him at all. “I think you're making too much of their importance,” he says. “It doesn’t do much for me.”
Encounters at the End of the World (2007) Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo
However, he chaired the 2010 Berlin Film Festival jury that controversially awarded the Silver Bear for The Ghost Writer to Roman Polanski, still a controversial figure in America, where he is wanted for the statutory rape of teenager Samantha. Gamer in the 1970s. “The award did not go to Polanski because he was under house arrest in Switzerland at the time,” Herzog says. “He got it because the jury, including myself, were completely convinced that it was an outstanding directorial achievement.” He doesn't have a cancel culture truck. According to him, this is “one of the stupidities of our time. We will look back in amazement in 50 years.”
If we get that far. “I'm becoming more and more convinced that because of our biological fragility and collective behavior, we could go extinct quite soon,” Herzog says. “But Nature doesn’t care.” There is beauty in the way Herzog writes about the natural world, although he reminds me that he has an open invitation to escape to Mars from Elon Musk, whom he spoke to in his 2016 technology documentary Behold and Behold. He is suspicious of Musk's motives. “You shouldn’t think about populating Mars with a million people. This is impossible,” says Herzog. “But this is a marketing gimmick. And anyone who has more brains than a primate will immediately see this.”
Still, Herzog would love to take his place on any mission to the Red Planet. He wanted to be one of eight civilians on SpaceX's trip around the moon, paid for by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. “I applied, seriously against my wife’s opinion,” he says. “But they didn’t accept me.”
Grizzly Man (2005) Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo
He currently lives on Earth – well, Los Angeles – with his third wife, Russian photographer Lena Pisetskaya, whom he married in 1999. About the USA he says: “I wouldn’t live in a country that I didn’t live in.” In fact, he really likes it,” and he professes a special love for the American heartland, “which is neglected, disenfranchised, undereducated and underrepresented in the media.”
He loves watching American trash . Television, because “television gives a good range of what occupies the minds of the audience… It's vulgar, but it exists, so it's better to take a closer look at what's around you.”
He also watches a lot of football. Has he caught a whiff of Messi mania in the US? “Forget the mania,” he says, “he's a truly great player.” What about Harry Kane, the new star back home at Bayern Munich? “I love players – and Harry Kane is one of them – who can read the game, who know where to be to score.”
Herzog still doesn't have a cell phone. He insists this is not a generational issue. “Even if I were 18 or 17 today, I probably wouldn’t have a cell phone. Because I think for myself and act for myself.” He, of course, uses the Internet. Lo and Behold presented a chilling picture of how technology is changing humanity. What has happened since then that has worried him the most?
“Well, it's gotten stronger, and now we have artificial intelligence. And we'll have to deal with it.” He talks about the phenomenal achievements of AI already in biochemistry, “but at the same time we have to realize that military affairs and many other things will change that are not very pleasant, so we need to be very vigilant.” Does he think it will change filmmaking? “Not mine. And when you look me straight in the eye, there will never be a film as good as mine. And he will never write a book the way I write.” And perhaps no one else.
Werner Herzog is trying extract
Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A Memoir by Werner Herzog (tr Michael Hofmann) is published in The Bodley Head on 19 October at £25.00 To pre-order call 0844 871 1514 or visit books. telegraph.co.uk