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  1. Culture
20 April 2015

Film is a contact sport: Werner Herzog on the physicality of directing

Do "whatever it takes" to get your film made.

By Antonia Quirke

Hardtalk
BBC World Service

An interview with the German director Werner Herzog (8 April, 3.05am) was marvellously convivial, despite the multiple mentions of death (on screen in his films), injury (off-screen during the making of them) and murder (Herzog and his muse Klaus Kinski openly plotted to kill eachother in 1981 during the pained making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s epic about building an opera house in the jungle). In fact, the word Herzog seemed to use more often than others was “hilarious”.

He finds a lot of things hilaireows. In his mouth, the word sounded musical and unusual, almost a phrase composed by Hindemith – but then Herzog’s voice is so increasingly distinctive as he ages (he is now 72) that there is always a pulse of suspicion that he’s pulling our leg with it, that it’s all part of an artistic persona. His advice to young film-makers? “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” But not about cinema. More Virgil, books on agriculture, how to pick a lock. It is vital, he says, to do “whatever it takes” to get your film made: he told a great story about forging elaborate papers to fob off the Peruvian armed forces while making his masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972.

I liked this idea. From where Herzog stands (a Bavarian still reeling from the “incomprehensible barbarism” of the Nazis) it’s the physicality of film-making that’s attractive. It’s a fight, a contact sport, all about dominating and winning an argument. To Herzog there is only one game in town: making films that are challenging critiques of humanity. He stole his first 35mm camera from the Munich Film School and has previously said, “I don’t consider it theft. It was just a necessity – I had some sort of natural right for a camera, a tool to work with.” The whole interview sounded so early Seventies: a little portrait of past times when the level of discourse expected of the artist was high. And yet always this humour, this devilishly triumphant smile.

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