An Encounter With Filmmaker Werner Herzog
Enlarge image Living on the edge: Werner Herzog peers over the rim of Mt. Erebus, an active Volcano on Ross Island, Antarctica. (© Courtesy THINKFilm) Director Werner Herzog is a connoisseur of the extreme. He famously hoisted a steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, plumbed the Amazonian rain forest with the volatile actor Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and ate his own shoe on camera when he lost a wager.
His most recent film Encounters at the End of the World can be seen as the natural evolution of a career spent exploring the limits of human endurance. It documents the unique human and natural environment of the most inhospitable part of the earth – Antarctica.
Herzog recently came to Washington to make a presentation based on his Antarctic experience at an event previewing the upcoming 50th anniversary of the The Antarctic Treaty in 2009. The 1959 agreement laid the groundwork for Antarctic exploration and international cooperation in the only continent without a native human population. The signatories, including the United States and the Soviet Union, agreed to use Antarctica only for peaceful purposes in 1959. Germany joined the treaty in 1979.
We spoke to Herzog about the treaty, Antarctica, and his current projects.
What is the significance of the Antarctic Treaty to you?
When I was asked to make this presentation, I immediately said yes, I can do it, because I believe that the Antarctic treaty is one of the finest documents of the civilized world and civilized behavior among nations in modern history.
It’s one of the finest treaties and it is functioning and it is not under dispute although it could be huge amounts of disputes concerning Antarctica. And I’ve personally experienced the international cooperation there, which functions as if it were a training field for how the nations of this world should better work together.
What’s astonishing about this is that when you count back 50 years it was the height of the cold war – or very much the cold war – at such a time a treaty like that was truly groundbreaking.
What inspired you to make a film about Antarctica?
I have to confess it was images that a friend of mine filmed under the Ross Ice Shelf. It is a bay in the continent of Antarctica the size of Texas. The ice on top of the water is 10 or 15 or 30 feet thick during the Austral summer. And as you have five months of day without night, the sunlight shines through this thick ice, and it’s just this astonishing science fiction movie world. There are the strangest creatures and the strangest things there, as if it was not of this world.
And I kept bothering my friend, saying I’d like to go there. And he said it’s not possible – you have to be invited by the National Science Foundation, and there was no reason for me to be invited because it’s scientists and maintenance people that are need there. For example, caterpillar operators or mechanical people, but not me. Then I was told about an artists and writers program of the National Science Foundation, and I applied and to my great surprise was invited.
I didn’t want to waste any resources down there that could be used for research. Normally filmmakers apply to go down there with a 35 person crew. I didn’t do that. We were a two-man crew. I brought a cinematographer and I did the sound. And we cut a very professional film anyway.
People have described the outlook of the film as pessimistic about the sustainability of human life on earth, especially with regard to climate change. Is that accurate?
Well, the film hardly mentions climate change, but let me put it this way:
I listened to many voices of scientists, not just in climate change, but people who are vulcanologists, working in neutrino research, biologists, evolutionary biologists, etc.
And it’s almost like one single voice that you hear – that the presence of human life on this earth is not sustainable. Climate change may be one of the things that will trigger our demise.
It doesn’t make me nervous that we will disappear from the face of the earth. It has happened to others. The presence of life on this planet has been in constant change, a chain of cataclysmic events. Trilobites came and went after hundreds of millions of years of existence, and dinosaurs came and went. Humans came relatively recently and they will relatively quickly disappear because we are more vulnerable than for example, a sponge. And whether it takes 20,000 years or 200,000 years until we are gone doesn’t really matter that much.
So that’s more the tone of the film. It’s not pessimistic, but just stating facts that seem inevitable. I’m not in the culture of complaint.
Now you are working on a project with Nicholas Cage called Bad Lieutenant – is that a remake of the original Bad Lieutenant from 1992?
It’s a completely new film with a completely different story. It’s called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I haven’t even seen the original Bad Lieutenant.
It is basically film noir. It’s so dark it’s almost hilarious. I think it’s going to be viewed as a comedy.
How does a film about a corrupt police officer fit in to your epic stories of people remote from civilization battling the odds of nature? It seems like a story that is ripe for treatment as a social drama?
It fits very well into the kinds of films I’ve made. Take for instance Aguirre, the Wrath of God where the main character somehow abandons all ties to civilized society and lives by creating his own rules, his own kingdom, his own empire. Of course it’s all in his fantasy and it’s a very dark film. This story is not very far from that.
How did you pick New Orleans?
There are a variety of reasons, but the main reason is that it takes place after Katrina. That was an event where political structures collapsed and regular behavior and the existence of law and order disappeared. It’s a very interesting moment in the history of New Orleans.
I immediately had the feeling that there are certain times that invite film noir. Of course film noir is a consequence of writing by people like Daschell Hammett and others. But it was also a consequence of the depression. It’s a mood, a climate that makes this kind of writing possible.
What makes the climate right for film noir now?
I was presented with the project very late when there was hardly any time for pre-production and I immediately thought it was interesting. In April when I stepped into the project, I sensed something new, something darker, some sort of a depression in the air.
I had the feeling there was something not going right. There was a practical experience; I was renting a car, and I was told I had to pay the highest monthly rate, and I asked why, and they said because my credit report is so bad, and I said to the car dealership, ‘Here’s my bank statement – doesn’t that look very very good? I don’t owe money to anyone.’
And they told me that’s the problem. If you use credit cards all the time and you had mortgages and borrowed all the time your credit score would be higher. And I thought, there’s something wrong. I am being punished for not borrowing money and for not buying things I cannot afford.
But let’s not get into doomsday scenarios here. I’m here to celebrate the Antarctic Treaty, which I had nothing to do with, but which I am lucky enough to have experienced so closely.
This nterview was conducted by David Brown in 2009.