Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
24 April 2009

Q&A: Werner Herzog

The director talks about his inspiration behind making Encounters at the End of the World,

By Daniel Trilling

Your new film, Encounters at the End of the World, is a documentary about Antarctica. You say you were inspired by some footage that divers had shot of the world beneath the frozen Ross Sea – so what exactly attracted you to the place?

It’s too obvious, it is a place so strange and so unusual it’s like as if you were not on this planet any more. It’s pure science fiction without any technical trick. I just was curious and I wanted to go there and dive myself and film myself. Of course I was not allowed to dive.

So you didn’t dive, but did you at least make it to the top of Mount Erebus [Antarctica’s active volcano]?

Of course, you actually cannot film there unless you are up there yourself. I was the sound man as well. We were only a two man crew.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

You mention science fiction, but there seemed to also be a religious element, carried by the soundtrack – all that choral music and chanting which soundtracks the underwater sequences.

Yes, you saw it correctly.

To me that contrasted with the contempt you express in the narration for “new age ideologues” and “tree huggers”. Do you see wild nature as having a spiritual element?

Well, it’s a question of great complexity and the film of course has some sort of an answer, or parts of an answer. When you ask about how I see wild nature, you have to see for example Grizzly Man, which dealt with it in more depth, you have to see Fitzcarraldo, well, I could rattle down twenty others, let us bear that problem now! Of course I think it’s a very unromantic, very stark view of nature. It’s strange that sometimes I have been labelled a romantic, because nobody can be more unromantic than I am!

Yes, I saw you described recently as “a great German Romantic imagination”, which I thought was odd.

It’s very odd but these categorisations are not my problem. They are yours, or the problem of the media. But let it be, I cannot change it.

You seem ambivalent towards the impact humans have on the environment. The way you treat MacMurdo, the US scientific base on Antarctica, suggests you think it’s a blot on the landscape.

It’s a very strange place actually, and it’s very ugly. When we think about Antarctica, we always think ah yes Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen and all those heroic deeds and hardships. Whereas in fact you have a place full of Caterpillars and it looks like an ugly mining town and you have as I say, such abominations as an aerobics studio and yoga classes.

Other people might find those things comforting!

Of course yoga classes are an abomination. The funny thing is that when you see the film with audiences, every single audience I have witnessed so far laughs out loud as if I was saying something that was obvious to everyone but nobody dares to say it.

The scenes where you go looking for gay and insane penguins must also create laughter.

Yeah, but it’s a very tragic moment, when the penguin who is certainly some kind of deranged walks into the interior of the continent. He has 5000 kilometres ahead of him and of course is walking to his death.

At the start of the film you say you’re not going to Antarctica to make a documentary about “cute penguins”. Was that aimed at any other films in particular? The Disney film Happy Feet, or the documentary March of the Penguins, perhaps?

That’s an attitude against the Disneyfication of wild nature. Walt Disney is a bastard child of Romanticism. The only real surviving bastard child of Romantic attitudes. But I am not.

Are you opposed to imposing any kind of human characteristics on animals?

Well, I’m not into this business. But it’s OK to be in this business for the four-year-olds.

You say that, but the footage of the penguin walking to its death reminded me of nothing more than Klaus Kinski floating down the Amazon in Aguirre…

Ah-ha, that’s a very unusual parallel you are drawing, I like what you are saying, I never thought of it like that. But I think there’s a common quality in it.

So really, you’re objecting to humans finding nature cute and cuddly, like in a Disney film.

Yeah, well, it’s more complicated because ultimately we are part of nature – though in a very specific role. Of course I do not see our role as the Happy Feet penguins film would see it.

Antarctica also occupies a place in our minds because of climate change. Did you intend to alert viewers to that process?

The film is not about climate change, it has other focal points of interest. I don’t need to add to the films about that subject. Besides, that is probably only one of the many elements which show clearly that our presence on this planet is not sustainable. That doesn’t make me nervous. It doesn’t make me nervous that the dinosaurs died out. And it doesn’t make me nervous that the trilobites died out, hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs. Life on this planet has been a constant chain of cataclysms and extinctions. But it is obvious that we are going to be next.

There is a tension in many of your films between acceptance of that fact, while at the same time a great care for a more intimate aspect of humanity. You say humans dying out doesn’t worry you, but then in Encounters… you talk about lost and dying languages as if that were a great tragedy.

Of course, it does worry me. But it doesn’t make me afraid. But everybody talks about extinction of whales or endangered whales, and we are not aware that at the same time, at a much more rapid rate, human languages and cultures are dying out. And the speed of it is staggering. You see, within the next fifty years, 90 per cent of all spoken languages on this planet will have disappeared without a trace.

Would that be a catastrophic loss for you?

It’s a catastrophic loss for human culture. Language is always a way to understand the world, to draw perspectives, to view the world. And you just have to imagine what happens if tomorrow the last speaker of the Russian language dies out. There would be no more Tolstoy, no more Mandelstam, no more Akhmatova, no more Dostoevsky, no more Orthodox music, no more scientists from Russia, no more philosophers, no more Orthodox church. It is catastrophic. While we are talking there are I think 16 known persons out there who are the last remaining speaker of their language. I just want to point to things like that. It’s not just climate change.

And by the way I’m planning to do a long term film project on dying languages.

Any idea when that will be ready?

It will be a project over many years because you have to go to New Guinea, you have to go to Amazonia, you cannot just do it over three weeks.

In Encounters…, you suggest that once the North and South Poles had been reached by explorers, humanity lost something by reaching the physical limits of the planet we’re on. Does art go some way towards filling the gap? Have you ever thought of your own films in that way?

You have to be cautious, films do not have much function, poetry doesn’t have much function, music doesn’t have much function, but of course they are a very important part of our collective soul. I wouldn’t like to answer it now by giving you a reasoning about the role of films and the responsibility of films.

But in this film at least, it seems that one of the things you were doing was making the Antarctic strange again – in the way that it would have been strange and unknowable to the first explorers who set foot there.

That’s an interesting aspect, I didn’t see it that way but I think you’re right. There is a strangeness and beauty out there that really attracted my curiosity. And it’s like always, the images that you have not seen before that are not worn out yet in commercials or on television or in advertisements in magazines, all this kind of imagery that is deeply somehow embedded in our collective soul and we haven’t discovered it yet, we haven’t articulated it yet. Like all the underwater footage, all the footage of the South Pole, how strange it is; under the ice of Mount Erebus, in these tunnels of ice, what a strange beautiful world that is. I’m just naming the glories, I’m just trying to name the glories of this continent.

These images gain even more power combined with the soundtrack. The music seems absolutely crucial to this film.

Yes it is, sure. It makes certain things more visible than they were without the music.

Like when the Ross Sea, trapped under metres of ice, is described as a “cathedral” in your film?

Yes, there’s a sacrality to the place. And the music of course makes it also visible.

This brings us back to the tension between human settlement and the “sacred” landscapes – those landscapes are inhuman in a way, very inhospitable to humans. Yet as the film progresses, you develop a kind of reverence for the settlers in MacMurdo – something that is emphasised again by the soundtrack, in this case a very gentle blues guitar tune.

You have to view the film also as something very spontaneous of course. You cannot plan things in advance in Antarctica. You have only one chance, you do not know what to expect. You cannot pre-arrange things. Much of what you see has an immediacy to it which brings a lot of life into the film. And it’s not all completely pre-planned and organised and mentally structured. I follow from surprise to surprise, in a way.

You have a phenomenal work-rate. What drives you? What keeps you excited about making films?

Right now I’m three films beyond Encounters… already: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans last August, which hasn’t been released yet, and I made a small film in Ethiopia, and I made My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, and in June I’m doing another film, so what drives me? I don’t know. It’s like burglars that invade my home at night.

Harmony Korine told me in an interview last year that he only felt at peace when he was behind the camera. Do you feel something similar?

I can’t completely follow what he says, for example I feel quite alright, for example, when I’m in front of the camera as a paid actor, like in Harmony Korine’s film Julien Donkey-Boy. I feel completely at home when I’m writing. By the way, Conquest of the Useless will be released in a few weeks in the United States. It’s a prose book based on diaries I wrote during the making of Fitzcarraldo. I mention it because I think this text will outlive my films.

We’re nearly done, but I want to return to Encounters… for a minute. At the beginning of the film, you ask a strange question: “Why do humans put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity?” Are you any nearer the answer now?

It’s a question which is still open! Why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of plant life as servants, as slaves, in order to milk them for droplets of sugar? But why is it a monkey does not saddle a goat and ride off into the sunset? It’s that kind of question that fascinates me. And my fascinations are clearly in the film. I actually love the film. And you know what is also the beauty of it? Every single film student could make the same film, because it was made with only one cinematographer and me the film-maker as sound man. With only two men you can make a film that ends up on screens in theatres.

Would you like to see more people making films in that way?

No, I say it to the people who complain about the difficulty of making films and about financiers who do not understand their quest. My answer is that the cameras are very much advanced now, the cameras are inexpensive, there is no excuse any more. Go out, do the sound yourself, have one man doing cinematography and come back with a feature film in five weeks. That was exactly my task – go down to Antarctica and you’d better come back with a movie.

To British viewers, at least, Encounters… will seem like a very warped take on the traditional TV nature documentary.

Yeah but I wouldn’t put them down because in Great Britain you have some of the very finest nature documentaries worldwide.

Are you a David Attenborough fan, then?

I am. I like his excitement, I like the fervour and how he comes across to an audience is just wonderful. You see the excitement that you feel as a child when you discover for the first time that there are mountains on the moon when you look through a telescope. He transports this kind of excitement, this spirit of wonder, into what he sees and what he presents. So I would not like to put down what you see on television. Some of it is phenomenally beautiful.

In a way, you and Attenborough are trying to get at the same thing, just approaching it in different styles.

In different styles, but the wonder and excitement makes us brothers. I salute Attenborough.

Let’s hope he sees this interview!

Whatever. He knows that he’s good.