Eric Ames is a University of Washington associate professor of Germanics and author of the new book “Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog.” Herzog is a highly regarded and controversial German filmmaker whose documentaries include “Grizzly Man,” (2005), “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007), and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010). Ames answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.
What is the central concept behind “Ferocious Reality: Documentary according to Werner Herzog”?
Herzog is known for how much he hates documentaries. And yet, he has made 30 of them, with several more in the works. The book sets out to explore this contradiction, how Herzog works both within and against the documentary tradition, and how his supposed hatred of documentary becomes, in effect, a creative dynamic.
You write that Herzog “engages documentary on his own terms.” What are those terms, and how do they differ from other documentary approaches?
For decades, Herzog has promoted his own alternative notion of truth in documentary cinema, one which he likes to call “the ecstatic truth.” By that he means a poetic truth which is based on stylization and aesthetic experience (and not simply found in the world by virtue of recording or mere observation). And yet, in making such claims, Herzog uses a language that is largely beholden to him. That’s also what I mean by engaging documentary “on his own terms.”
Herzog is a filmmaker who loves to talk about his work — he has given more than 800 interviews — a characteristic which is great for fans and critics (especially because he likes to say outrageous things and he has such a wonderful voice), but one which also becomes a problem for scholars. I couldn’t begin to write this book until I had found a way to separate my thoughts and my language about the films from what Herzog has to say about them and about documentary more generally.
And what I found, then, was that Herzog’s approach and its difference from that of other filmmakers is really a difference of degree and not in kind. All documentary can do is stylize. Herzog just embraces this idea and gives it a swagger that sets him apart.
Does Herzog pre-stage scenes and rehearse performers in his documentaries? And does that stretch the definition of documentary?
Herzog is known for staging scenes, for leading people with scripted bits of dialogue, and for shooting multiple takes (especially with films made in multiple-language versions). And then he flaunts this particular aspect of his documentaries — in interviews, for example — so that the act of filmmaking itself becomes a type of performance and a topic of discussion among fans and critics.
But Herzog’s films also involve plenty of unscripted moments, improvised scenes and chance events. What we have, then, is a playful mix of elements — encounter and artifice, observation and stylization — a mix that doesn’t necessarily stretch the boundaries of documentary but one that certainly calls attention to them and that raises certain questions about what we usually just assume or expect of documentary.
You write that, although he refuses to align himself with the documentary tradition, “Herzog may be the most influential filmmaker whose contribution to documentary is nowhere discussed in the major studies and standard histories of the form.” Why is that?
To put it bluntly, Herzog is German and his films don’t fit the critical mold that earlier generations of scholars carved out for documentary, particularly in the English-speaking world. What is more, Herzog clearly takes pleasure in breaking this particular mold; it is an integral part of his identity as a filmmaker.
The good news is, today, scholars tend to be relaxed about documentary’s generic boundaries (not policing them), curious about the form’s cultural variations, and open to its creative possibilities.
Finally, what do you think Herzog’s effect will be on the future of documentary cinema?
I think Herzog and his films will continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers, including those who work in documentary.
But what happens when “documentary cinema” moves from the theater to the Internet? Will Herzog’s work resonate in an online environment? The larger question, going forward, is how the web may affect our understanding of “documentary” and of the “cinema” more generally.
- “Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog” was published in October 2012 by University of Minnesota Press. Learn more about Herzog at his website.