For a filmmaker whose documentary work centers on adventurous treks to remote locations and interviews with ardent outsiders, strict quarantines would seem to be anathema to Werner Herzog’s entire being. But the 78-year-old director, writer, and occasional actor, whose work spans more than 70 features and docs, remains perpetually busy. “I am writing poetry and prose texts, which doesn’t cost much money and I can do it in a reclusive environment,” he says via Zoom from his Los Angeles home. “If I had the finances ready, I could start six feature films.”
With his latest film Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, Herzog, alongside volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, delves into the scientific, poetic, and spiritual impact of meteorites throughout history. The captivating doc — which finds the duo traveling from Norway to Antarctica to a remote island near Australia to talk with scientists and other experts — captures Herzog’s insatiable curiosity and deft blend of history, science, and sociology.
But for now, Herzog is taking an “extremely disciplined approach” to the pandemic. “I’m not fatalistic,” he says. “I’m responsibly doing the thing that is needed to be done. I’m down in the trenches.” In an interview for Rolling Stone‘s Last Word series, Herzog looks back on his career and talks memory, politics, heroes, and ignoring all advice.
What are the most important rules that you live by?
It’s curiosity, which doesn’t leave me. It’s also discipline, because we are in unusual times, where you can only fight back with responsibility and discipline. Sealing yourself off from contacts with other human beings as much as you can [and] meeting them only under precautions. We have to starve the sucker, and that’s what we can do; an extremely disciplined approach can overcome a pandemic.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I can’t even tell you. I’ve shaped my own life ignoring advice as far as I could.
Maybe it’s better to ask about the best advice you’ve ignored.
Ignore the advice, but stick to your culture, stick to your visions, stick to your dreams. Move the ship over a mountain if necessary. Every man and woman should move his ship over a mountain. Just do it, because we have to sometimes reach out to something that’s much bigger than ourselves. It touches a collective vision that’s dormant inside of many of us. That’s what poetry is doing. That’s what music is doing.
Did you have a favorite book as a child that you keep coming back to?
Winnie the Pooh. My mother would read books to the children, and I grew up so remote in a valley in the Alps in Bavaria. There was barely any school. Nobody would read. It was peasant kids. They would all come and cram together in our little kitchen and my mother would read stories. We cried in joy to hear a chapter from Winnie the Pooh each night.
What was it about the book that affected you?
Its beauty. Its fantasy. You love Winnie. And you love Piglet. And you love Eeyore. They are indelibly present in part of my soul. The soul of a child can be explained in this book.
Is there any advice you wish you could give to your younger self?
No. Go for it, as I did it. Go for all the mistakes. I made so many mistakes in doing my films. They all have a stutter or a limp or they are squint-eyed. Hardly anyone notices it, but I notice. Make your mistakes. Get arrested if you trespass. Yes. Do it. There’s nothing wrong with spending a night or two in jail. I’ve done that. Don’t be afraid of the grizzly bear behind you. Travel on foot. Read books. I don’t see so many films, but I read. Young filmmakers ask me for advice; read, read, read, read, read, read, read! Only that will make you a real good filmmaker. Otherwise, you will become a filmmaker, but a mediocre one at best. All the good-grade filmmakers — Coppola, Errol Morris, Terrence Malick — are voracious readers.
Do you think the advent of social media and scrolling has devalued literacy and reading?
It’s longer than that. It’s more than half a century that literacy has declined. Even young students who study ancient Greek barely read a book. It’s a catastrophic evolution. It’s not the tweets. The tweets are only the discourse on the internet in chat rooms that are monosyllabic and filled now with emojis. A tweet does not induce you to conceptual thinking. They are only the end of an evolution that has gone on for decades and I do not welcome it.
When you look on television, for example, if you have intelligent people commenting on the political scene or events, you always see bookshelves behind them. They are people who read. If you walk into brownstones on New York’s Upper West Side, there are very wealthy people there, people who “made it” in life. Since there are no curtains, you can look into their windows and you do not pass a single brownstone where there’s no bookshelf. Only when you read books will you understand larger narratives and you will understand the hidden poetry between lines.
How does memory play into that? I find that my memory is getting worse, in part because I know I can just look something up online.
We are speaking already of digital dark ages. Nobody writes letters anymore. And in the 18th and 19th century, we know about the intimate thoughts about writers and thinkers, or about our great-great-great grandmothers because of the letters she wrote to great-great-great grandfather … I don’t have a smartphone. I do not want to absorb reality through applications on the internet or on my smartphone.
This is why many things I do not want to delegate to a cellphone photo or to a memory stick. That’s why, for example, witnessing the birth of my child, I would never go in with a camera and keep it as a memory, as a little movie. You go there as a man and you see this amazing, violent act of a child being born. You just be there and you watch it in awe. You will never delegate it and you will never forget it. The bulk and sculpture of our memories are sculpted by ourselves, not by the facts. That’s the beauty of it.
“You can turn a failure into something very healthy and into something you’d never do again. It improves your procedures. It improves your qualities.”
Is having a camera on every phone an asset or detriment to filmmaking?
It will not make much difference with filmmaking. We have three thousand, five hundred million photographers now who have their cameras on them daily and it hasn’t improved the great art of photography or cinema a bit. But a wonderful side effect is that somebody who is barefoot, moneyless, and impoverished somewhere out in the Third World can make a credible, professional feature if they have it in them to express something big.
Who are your heroes?
Well, in childhood — in this village that was cut off from civilized world — there were lumbermen and some cattle farmers. We didn’t have running water or toilets and we barely had electricity and were hungry as children, but there was a young lumberman who was defying police, and right after the war, [he] started smuggling coffee from Austria.
He eluded police and made fools of them, playing the trumpet from one summit, and then police would rush up there to arrest him, and he had secretly snuck down into the valley, and on the other side, played his trumpet from the summit on the other side. For a fortnight, he held out and was not arrested. He was so strong; he had muscles like a bodybuilder because he was hoisting heavy logs.
A milk truck broke through the little bridge into the creek. And, of course, it needed a crane to hoist it out, but everybody called for Siegel Hans! Siegel Hans will come! He came, took off his shirt, and with his bulging muscles, tried to hoist the truck out of the creek. Of course, you cannot hoist 15 tons as a human being, but he tried it anyway. For us, he was a hero.
What about in the arts?
The heroes are the ones who have made discoveries that were neglected and who had been derided for it. Hardly anything is left of Dutch painter Hercules Seghers, but he made unbelievable prints four centuries ahead of his time and was considered a madman.
Or, for example, a musician like [16th-century composer Carlo] Gesualdo [the subject of Herzog’s 1995 film Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices]; mad like hell. He wrote music that we only have heard hundreds of years later from Stravinsky. Gesualdo became notorious because he murdered his young wife, whom he caught in flagrante with a young nobleman from Naples, and then fled to his castle. And with his henchmen, almost single-handedly, he cut down an entire forest around his castle. We don’t know why. He went into self-flagellation and had young men flagellate him, literally to death. Wild, wild, wild characters. The heroic part of it is transcending the boundaries of his time and being ignored and ridiculed.
What’s your personal definition of the word “success”?
I do not relate to it because I have been shaped by failures.
How about “failure”?
Oh, it’s too obvious. You can turn a failure into something very healthy and into something you’d never do again. It improves your procedures. It improves your qualities. I have had real setbacks. You might remember [during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo], I was accused of having committed human-rights violations against the native population. There was a public tribunal against me. I knew this looks like a failure, but it is not going to be, because it will be learned by a general public that I did not commit human-rights violations, period. Period. It was propaganda at that time. But I outlived it, and I learned from it, and I made my film anyway.
Do you consider yourself an optimistic person?
Well, I don’t think of such categories of optimism or pessimism. I’m looking ahead and whatever is thrown my way, I’m going to deal with it, and I’m not frightened at what’s coming at me. I’ve never been frightened. I followed my vision and it doesn’t matter if there are optimistic scenarios out there or pessimistic scenarios. You just throw things at me and I will deal with it.
“I’ve never been frightened. I followed my vision and it doesn’t matter if there are optimistic scenarios out there or pessimistic scenarios. You just throw things at me and I will deal with it.”
At the end of Fireball, we see a man who describes meteorites as vessels for the souls of those who died, saying, “Death is not so much an event as the beginning of a new journey.” Do you share that sentiment?
Yes. The poetry of it, I understand and accept. The tribal people in the Torres Strait Islands, in particular on this island [Mare Island] believe that the souls of the departed ride on meteorites to the netherworld. It’s a beautiful thought and it’s a beautiful poetry in it. I completely and utterly accept it, because I have no better scenario myself. [Laughs]
As a political observer, what was your take on everything that happened in the weeks following Election Day?
I couldn’t participate in the elections because I’m not a citizen, but I wish I could have. Since I’m a guest in your country, sometimes I have a halfway outside perspective, and I see things in sharper profile. It’s made clear to everyone — more clear than in the previous election — that there’s a huge segment of the heartland of America that has a different experience of America and has been neglected and disenfranchised and has not been in the movies, for example.
America has to acknowledge that there is the very heart of America that needs attention. It needs information. I keep telling a friend of mine who is in the movie business, “You live here in Los Angeles, but I know you come from Lansing, Michigan. You have all your high school buddies there. When did you speak to them last?” “Oh, I haven’t spoken to them since high school days.” I said, “Speak to them. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them about their problems. They’re not the flyovers.”
The term “flyovers,” which I’ve heard from the East Coast and West Coast elites, is an obscenity. Twenty years ago, I have admonished friends of mine, “How can you use a term like this? It is obscene and it will hit back at you.” The fact remains for a long, long time — decades — that the heartlands have been ignored.
You told us three years ago, “It’s mysterious how Trump is getting away with literally everything. I see it with great, strange fascination.” Has that changed since then?
Well, fascination, you have to be very careful. I do have a fascination for a movie character like Aguirre, Wrath of God, who, in this case, as I’m speaking of movies, is a villain. All of a sudden, there’s somebody who doesn’t speak the language of politics, somebody who is, in my opinion, on the right track in a few fundamental things, like he’s the first president who has publicly spoken of the senselessness of American wars. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, you just name it. Nobody has dared to say that.
You have to give him credit, whether you like him and whether you like his show-business attitude and his vulgarities. You have to look beyond that. You better look at the America that he represents. That’s what remains at the end of the day. Presidents come and go. You had this strange fascination to read his tweets. I was under the impression that he lifted the tweets to a literary form, almost like the Japanese haiku. [Laughs] I’m saying that while I’m smiling. But he has to be taken seriously because the systematic representation part of America has to be taken seriously.
Are you surprised that mask-wearing has become a political statement?
No, because you see it very often in America that there’s a certain disdain for science and for scientific advice because the West was made by men with their boots on the ground and coming in plain wagons and riding the horses and conquering a vast continent and who knew how to use the shovel and the plow. It’s a sense of, we settle our fate with our rifle in the hand, and with the right faith and behind the plow. It has not been deeply embedded in the psyche of America yet that much of what we are doing today has a scientific foundation and justification, sometimes. It has to do with a history of the United States.
Do you hope that Fireball plays a role in promoting science and mitigating that disdain?
Yes, of course. I said to Clive, “If there’s a single kid out there who sees this and says, ‘I want to do something like that. I want to go into science,’ then we have done the right thing.”
There’s a quote in the film by philosophy-of-science professor Simon Schaffer that talks about how the meteorite is an organism that speaks to us. He says that “meteorites have meaning and the task of humanity is to interpret what that meaning is.” What meaning did the meteorites have for you in the course of studying and filming them?
I should be careful to speak about meaning, but I can tell you that moviemaking and my films always have a sense of awe. When I look at what’s coming down at us, it’s just awesome. Science has the same sort of attitude. The tiniest specks of dust that you barely can see with your naked eyes are the most awesome and beautiful sculptures [when you] magnify it 3,000 times.
“We share the same history with the entire universe. … It’s not going to be a surprise for me if we have evidence of life out there.”
In one sense, you treat meteors, comets, and the like as works of art as much as bodies of science.
Yes, but they’re much more than works of art. Phenomenal forces of heat and friction and velocity have shaped them into something, but take a closer look, and there are building blocks of life embedded in them. Amino acids. Some of them were found with sugar in it. The question immediately comes, could it be that life has been transported from outer space onto our planet? Which I think is not very likely, but the next question is, is there life out there somewhere? That is quite likely. It wouldn’t be any surprise at all if we’ll soon find real elements of life out there like algae or microbes.
We share the same history with the entire universe. We share the same chemistry with the universe and we share the same physics with the universe. It’s not going to be a surprise for me if we have evidence of life out there. Probably this kind of life, unfortunately, is not going to be like in the movies. There are no evil civilizations to destroy us.
At 78, you’re still working on multiple projects at a time. Do you think much about your legacy?
My younger brother, who has brought a lot of stability in my work, has done all the finances and the organization and has made high-resolution scans of all my films and collected all my writings. He pushed me for a long time to start a nonprofit foundation where the rights of all my films will be put together so that nobody can break a brick out of the wall. The situation after my death is going to be complicated because I was married to two women before, and now I’m married for a third time. I do have children and in such situation, you have endless, decades-long fights.
Look at Hitchcock or Kubrick. Putting things into a fortress of legal binding is something I have been persuaded [to do]. My older brother, who is the boss of the family, sat me down at the kitchen table, and he only said, “You will start this foundation.”
It wasn’t a question; it was a command.
Yes, and he has the authority. He’s actually the only successful member of my family. He gave one argument: “Your films do not belong to you alone. They belong to the people out there. You better start your foundation now.”
Donald Sutherland once said, “Actors don’t retire; they die.” Do you feel the same way about filmmakers?
I don’t know where it ends. I can’t catch up with all the projects at me and they come with great vehemence. I can’t duck away into any trenches.