UW Today

May 16, 2014

Filmmaker Werner Herzog examined in new book of interviews

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"Werner Herzog: Interviews," edited by the UW's Eric Ames, was published by University Press of Mississippi.

“Werner Herzog: Interviews,” edited by the UW’s Eric Ames, was published by University Press of Mississippi.

Eric Ames is a University of Washington professor of Germanics and editor of the recent book, “Werner Herzog: Interviews.” He answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.

Q: Here we have a book of interviews with film director Werner Herzog. You first wrote about him in 2013. What led you to study Herzog and to produce these two books?

A: The first book was directly inspired by “Grizzly Man,” Herzog’s documentary about a man who lived among grizzly bears in Alaska, and was finally devoured by one of them. After watching that movie, I launched into all Herzog’s films and for various reasons ended up writing a book about the documentaries. I also read some of the many wonderful interviews that Herzog has given throughout his long career — more than 1,000 so far. The interview turns out to be the key genre for understanding the director and his work.

Q: Conversations with Herzog were collected in book form for “Herzog on Herzog” in 2002. What does he explore or explain here that sets these interviews apart from previous conversations? What new or different ground is broken?

A: “Herzog on Herzog” claims to be a single retrospective interview conducted in 2002. My collection is different. It brings together 25 of the best interviews that Herzog has given from 1968 to the present. Each interview is charged with the energy of a new release, and each shows Herzog at a different point in his career. More than half of the interviews have been translated for this volume and are available in English for the very first time. Several come from Herzog’s production archive, and three of them were previously unpublished. Even hard-core Herzog fans will make discoveries here.

Q: Herzog, a storyteller, blurs the lines between truth and invention in his filmmaking. Does he do the same in press interviews? If so, how and toward what end?

A: Yes, he does. That’s what I learned from this project. Interviews are at once improvised and rehearsed, spontaneous and scripted. Reading through these hundreds of interviews, I began to notice patterns — especially repetitions in the use of certain words, phrases, sentences, and in a few cases entire paragraphs. What does it tell us about Herzog that he repeats himself almost verbatim over the span of many years? Is he answering questions mechanically, or what’s going on?

There are many different uses of repetition, and their effects vary. In some situations, they work to suggest the terms of a film’s reception, how critics and readers should talk about it. In other situations, repetitions help shape and reinforce certain aspects of Herzog’s public image, how we imagine his behavior and personality. This book, uniquely, shows how scripting and rehearsal in the interviews continues the process of scripting and staging in Herzog’s films.

Q: Wildman actor Klaus Kinski often appears in these pages. What will readers learn about him, and about his relationship with Herzog, in this volume?

A: Theirs is a very well-known relationship, one of conflict and collaboration, of mutual love and hate. Much of it is legend, part of it deliberately so — “We planned each other’s murders,” and stuff like that. Some of it is hilarious. The book adds details that will be new to readers who don’t have access to either French or German — the interviews on “Aguirre,” “Nosferatu,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Cobra Verde,” for example.

More importantly, though, it shows the process of mythmaking in action, how Herzog talks about Kinski, uses him for an effect, and how that effect changes over time, especially after Kinski’s death.

Q: Finally, after all this work, what is your personal view of Herzog? What will be his legacy?

A: I came away even more impressed with Herzog and his work than I was before, which is not what I had expected. As a scholar I just assume that I’ll gradually become disenchanted by what I’m studying. It’s an occupational hazard. But this stuff took hold of me and never let me go.

As for Herzog’s legacy, I suppose it depends on what happens to “film” over time and what we value about moving images in the future. But if the world ended today, I’d say this: Herzog made his greatest contribution in the area of documentary cinema. I’m thinking of films like “Land of Silence and Darkness,” “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” “Grizzly Man” and many others.

He also practically defined what it meant to be an auteur in the late 20th century, moving as he did between fiction and documentary, blurring the distinction between his life and his films, and turning himself into an elaborate, riveting myth.

  • “Werner Herzog: Interviews” was published by University Press of Mississippi as part of its Conversations with Filmmakers Series, and will be available in an e-reading format soon.
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