The Tao of Werner Herzog: ‘I’m Not Someone Like Madonna’

The iconic German filmmaker opens up about his new book, love for the WWE, saving Joaquin Phoenix’s life, and much more.

Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty

“I think I’m not one of those people who reinvents himself all the time,” Werner Herzog confided on a recent evening in Los Angeles as he prepared to present a reading from his acclaimed book Of Walking On Ice in that dulcet, measured, unmistakable voice. “I’m not someone like Madonna.”

It’s tough to argue with Herzog on Herzog. The Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God director has been waging interrogations into humanity for almost five decades, seeking truths about the way we live with one another and within the world. But even off-camera, Herzog’s exploits are larger than life. With each new addition to the Werner Herzog mythos, the legend grows infinitely more intriguing.

The German auteur famously warred with his firebrand muse, the late Klaus Kinski, even as they made their careers making some of the best work of their lives. He hiked through the snow from Munich to Paris on a poetic quest to stop the universe from taking the life of a dear friend—and, some might argue, won that battle. He once continued an interview after being shot by a mystery assailant with an air rifle, smiling through the flesh wound and waving away concern: “It’s not significant.”

Herzog filtered his findings into over 40 fiction and non-fiction feature films and over a dozen more shorts, written books, directed operas, and once infamously ate his own shoe (boiled in a garlic-herb stock) in the name of art. Along the way he spent considerable time looking inward, even as the myth of Werner Herzog has grown beyond his control.

Take, for example, the time he was driving near his home in Los Angeles when he saved a stranger after a gnarly car crash. A stranger who happened to be Joaquin Phoenix.

“Joaquin Phoenix, sure,” he said, pronouncing Phoenix’s first name in his heavily German-inflected accent. “What do you do if somebody flips over and flies through the air and lands on the roof and you are the first one there? You’d better stop your car and try to help.”

On that day in 2006, Herzog just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. “He was upside down and airbags [had] deployed. He was literally head down, upside down,” he recalled. Phoenix desperately wanted a smoke as he lay trapped and in shock, but Herzog intervened. “I tricked him into a moment of lack of attention and I snatched the cigarette lighter, because there was gasoline dripping and he was locked inside. There was no way to get him out because the car was too crushed. Some other people came and helped and we had to crush the rear window, and that’s how we got him out.”

Legend has it that after the rescue Herzog disappeared when Phoenix was secured and drove humbly off into the distance. Even Phoenix, who was Oscar-nominated for Walk the Line shortly thereafter, marveled at the calming effect Herzog had while he was trapped in the wreckage. “He wanted to say thank you but I jumped in my car and drove off,” laughed Herzog.

“I didn’t want to make a fuss about it. But I never reported it and never spoke about it until he, Joaquin Phoenix, started to talk about it,” he shrugged. “I thought it was something which was fairly common. I’ve been a first responder in various accidents in my life—much more serious ones than that one.”

Even more bizarre, the incident occurred days after Herzog’s air rifle shooting. “It was a statistical anomaly,” he insisted. “It was completely random. I cannot say it’s strange. It’s the climate. It’s a folklore. It’s the way of life here. I didn’t make that life. I didn’t put myself into these situations. You see, when you get shot and you don’t even know who did it, you marvel for a moment and then you just move on because any idiot can come at any time and shoot me. So it’s part of the folklore of Los Angeles.”

The folklore of Herzog the auteur is dominated by the theory most closely associated to his work in documentaries—his “ecstatic truth.” He outlined it in 12 handy bullet points in a 1999 manifesto: Such verity in cinema can only exist in the spaces in between. “It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization,” he declared then.

But some of Herzog’s more personal truths aren’t best conveyed through film. In November of 1974, weeks after debuting his ninth feature, cinema’s greatest living anthropologist took a break from movies to embark on a long, lonely walk.

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Herzog, then 32, had just heard that his mentor and friend Lotte Eisner had fallen ill. He packed boots, a compass, and a bag and set out to hoof it through the snowy winter on foot from Munich to Paris, convinced that the Herculean effort might somehow keep her alive. He documented his solitary 600-mile odyssey in the pages of a notebook and four years later published them under the title Of Walking In Ice: 23 November-14 December 1974.

“I’m under the impression that my written work will survive my films, he said. “It will have a longer life, because of the intensity of it and the substance of it. Books have a longer life than films, anyway. In movies you always have a lot of strata in between, like a screenplay or finances, organization and actors and psychology and editing and the technical side. But when you are writing, there is nothing in between. It’s a much more direct form of doing what you do.”

If the truth lives in the telling and receiving, there is a “truth” in every iteration of the Werner Herzog that is repeated and retold by cinephiles, and emulated by the young filmmakers who flock to his annual Rogue Film School seminars. And younger audiences know a completely different Herzog: pop Herzog. How many other leaders of the New German Cinema have lent their voices to shows like The Simpsons and Metalocalypse, done guest spots on Parks and Rec, or played literal father figure in the films of Harmony Korine?

The Simpsons!” he exclaimed, his face crinkling into a warm smile. “Well, that’s my apotheosis in pop culture in America.”

“I like to be part of what’s really going on and what fascinates young people,” he explained, delightfully pointing out his most popular role to date—acting opposite Tom Cruise as the stone-faced villain of Jack Reacher. “The real surprise is not that I did it. The real surprise is that I was better than anyone else in the film!”

After Jack Reacher, other acting offers came in for Herzog but none of them were any good, he lamented. “People remember that,” he said. “They don’t remember the story, but they remember me as the villain, as a frightening badass bad guy. In Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, I’m a hostile dysfunctional father who harasses his children. Yes, I’m good at that.”

“Although I have to stress, since my wife is here, that I’m a fluffy husband,” he said, reaching out to squeeze the hand of photographer wife Lena Herzog, sitting at his side.

“He’s very sweet,” she confirmed.

The 73-year-old Herzog lost his decidedly un-fluffy collaborator Kinski when the actor died in 1991. Eight years later Herzog paid tribute to their tumultuous relationship in the film My Best Fiend, one of his most bracingly personal works. “I learned mostly from my own mistakes. I am a product of my own shortcomings, a product of trial and error,” he said, reflecting on the late Kinski.

“Yes, it’s OK that there’s somebody out there who yells at the top of his lungs. Why not? There’s nothing wrong about it. The film was made, it was finished, and it’s a very fine one. There were some other incidents that have become notorious, yes, but it doesn’t count much. It doesn’t count much. The only thing that counts is what you see on the screen.”

“Nobody cares what sort of a pestilence the young Marlon Brando was on his sets,” he argued. “We see Brando in On the Waterfront, for example, and he’s phenomenal. It’s simply forgotten what kind of behavior, how long he overslept on shooting days. Who cares if Marilyn Monroe always came two hours late for shooting? It’s just a little arabesque.”

As for his methods handling stars in his other films, he flashed back to a moment working with Nicolas Cage on the set of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

“There was a very significant episode with Nicolas Cage on the second or third day of shooting,” he recalled. “He came to me: ‘Werner, I know you hate to have endless discussions with your actors about motivations and the background of the figure and what’s going on day and night. I have one simple question. Why is the lieutenant so bad? Is it the drugs? Is it the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Is it the corruption of the police force? Is it the dysfunction of the family he grew up with?’”

“I said, ‘Just stop it,’” Herzog remembered. “I said to him, ‘Nicolas, there is such a thing like the bliss of evil… Go for it.’” He paused.

“And he said: ‘Got it. I got it.’ And he was wonderful.”

Herzog seldom goes to the movies, but he will watch the occasional “odd thing” at home. He still waxes ecstatic over his known love for WWE, comparing the operatic shenanigans of the McMahon family to the dramatic works of the ancient Greeks. “Of course, Sophocles and Euripides are a very sophisticated high culture form of it. But I do believe, and there is some evidence, that they had very crude origins which are not unlike the stories, the drama—the invented drama—around Wrestlemania.”

He chuckled, recapping the storylines that captivated him in the world of professional wrestling. “The very exotic dramas, with the owner of the franchise wheeling his blind wife into the ring, she with sunglasses and allegedly blinded, he with three buxom babes on his arm… his son climbing into the ring and attacking the fathernot for his behavior against the mother, but because he wouldn’t give him enough money from the franchise! It’s very, very beautiful stuff.”

WWE came into Herzog’s life, like many of the “strange things” he watches, “because I want to keep the finger on the pulse. I want to know in which kind of world I am.”

Elsewhere in said world, Herzog is avowedly anti-cellphone. “I do not have a cellphone, for cultural reasons. I do not want to be available all the time. I prefer to have a conversation with no phones on, nobody under the table texting or answering a message. And I’m not into any social network. My social network is our dinner table, which seats maximum six people. My wife, me, and four guests maximum.”

He uses the Internet, he says, strictly for email and “quickly available knowledge—deeper knowledge, I would never look to the Internet for.” Google Maps is the last thing he remembers consulting online—for directions to tonight’s book reading at the well-heeled workspace collective NeueHouse.

And yet one of three new films he’s made in the last 10 months is about young people and the Internet. “It’s something that really engages the everyday life, the curiosity, and the addiction of young people,” he said. “I filmed in a rehab center where addicted young people are treated, and some of it is so serious you cannot even imagine. People literally die at the computer. They do.”

People in his biggest new film needn’t worry about technology. The Nicole Kidman starrer Queen of the Desert, an epic about the life of British archeologist Gertrude Bell, premiered in Berlin and debuts this month at AFI Fest. He cast Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence before fully grasping how huge the Twilight franchise was.

“I only realized that wherever I showed up in Morocco there were screeching teenies,” he smiled. “Pattinson is a very, very smart, very well-educated and intelligent young man. When he says things in the film, they’re always credible. You see you don’t just have a pretty face. It was a pleasure to have him around. A good comrade, as well.”

Critics in Berlin gave a chilly welcome to Queen of the Desert, which also stars James Franco and Damian Lewis as the other men of Bell’s life. Herzog suggests that maybe they missed the point; it’s a rare film of his involving love and romance.

“Some people expected the film to be a biopic. I never wanted it to be a biopic. I always said it’s going to be a film about longing,” he said. “So what? This is a film about longing and her biography is so complex anyway that you need a series of 12 films to get to the bottom of her life span.”

Queen of the Desert is one of two new Herzog films led by women. Salt and Fire, a film Herzog scripted in five days and shot in Bolivia, stars Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, and Gael Garcia Bernal.

Salt and Fire is also a female leading character, but it doesn’t have so much to do with longing. It has to do with a very independent, self-confident woman. It’s a very mysterious story. So I have looked into central characters that are still basically the same sort of characters that are always shown in my films. What can I say? I’m not doing Fitzcarraldo 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 to 8, like Rocky.”

“Women have always totally fascinated me,” admitted Herzog. His films have frequently centered around dreamers, oddballs, and the human condition, but rarely heroines.

Do you feel like you understand women? I ask.

“In a way, yes. But who am I to tell?” he answered, a twinkle in his eyes. “Nobody really understands women, including they themselves, sometimes. There’s a certain mysterious side, and we’d better keep it mysterious. My simple answer is, imagine a world inhabited only by men. It would be unspeakably awful.”