Werner Herzog on Why He’s a Fan of Putin and How Democrats Neglect America’s Heartland
The legendary filmmaker opens up about his new Apple TV+ meteorite documentary “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” the 2020 election, and how the world will end.
Few filmmakers have a resume—in either fiction or non-fiction—to match that of Werner Herzog. Over the course of six immensely fruitful decades, the illustrious German director has triumphed with dramas such as Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Rescue Dawn, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (many made with his favorite leading man Klaus Kinski, with whom he had a tempestuous love-hate relationship), as well as masterful documentaries like Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and Grizzly Man. Known for his thickly accented voice, his attraction to the furthest corners of the planet, and his fondness for layering his works with ruminative narration about life’s profound questions, he’s a one-of-a-kind auteur—and one who, at 78 years old, has lost none of his artistic inquisitiveness and flair.
Herzog’s canon is rooted in the search for existence’s deep underlying meanings—something he refers to as “ecstatic truths”—and that continues with Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, a rapturous feature co-directed with British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer that plumbs the history and mysteries of meteorites and shooting stars. Premiering on Apple TV+ on Nov. 13, it’s an inquiry into the vastness of space and the cavernous recesses of the Earth, bridging heavenly and hellish realms to seek out the significance these ancient space rocks hold for our spiritual and scientific beliefs. Like so much of Herzog’s oeuvre, it’s a documentary fascinated by the unknowable and otherworldly, and our inherent and complicated relationship to them. In a year that’s seen the premiere of two additional stellar films by the director (Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, Family Romance LLC), as well as brought us his celebrated turn as the Baby Yoda-coveting Client in Disney+’s The Mandalorian—an acting gig that took full advantage of his imposing and enigmatic presence—Herzog’s latest reconfirms his standing as cinema’s preeminent adventurer-philosopher-poet-visionary.
On the eve of Fireball’s debut, we spoke with him about meteorites, his trip to Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away, his feelings about the rise of long-form streaming docuseries, and America’s current political circumstances.
What are your thoughts about the just-finished election? Are you heartened? Surprised? Exhausted?
I must say I followed it very closely. I wish I could have participated, but I cannot vote [laughs]. It would be an illegal one. I’m not an American citizen. But I wish I could have voted. In a way, I kind of predicted it correctly. I’m a guest in your country, and I love to be here and I like America for its astonishing qualities to overcome crises. So I was under the impression that there would be a change. Looking at it halfway from the outside, sometimes you can see the perspective clearer, and the contours you may see a little bit clearer, than being inside the forest, where you only see trees. You do not see the forest.
Of course, the biggest of all challenges is coronavirus, and it will be tackled. I read and hear and see on TV that the incoming administration sees this as its top priority because it’s a subsequent problem that’s coming—the economic problem. You can tell how well America had been doing when it was hit out of the blue. Trump was totally correct in claiming that the American economy was booming in an exceptional way. But priority has to be that coronavirus has to be suppressed, and only that will make the economy open up and booming again.
I read that you had a “great, strange fascination” with Trump…
No, no, no. That would be wrong. I watch things and I saw a highly unusual president, but at the same time, I always said to all my friends, who are mostly Democratic-oriented—not all of them—but it was 20 years ago, they spoke from Boston and they spoke from Seattle and from San Francisco, and they spoke of “the flyovers.” And I said, what are you saying? This is the heartland of America, and if you do not keep watching the soul of America, the heartland of America, and some of the best of America—if you do not do that, and you keep them disenfranchised and you neglect them, it will have consequences. I do believe that the elections have pointed it out very, very clearly, that there is a huge, huge portion of the American people who are neglected, who are not participating as fully as they should.
Do you think that means that, even though Trump has lost the presidency, Trumpism will live on in those heartland states?
Yes—but the heartland can be embraced. I love the heartland. I have worked in Wisconsin. I ask my friends, “Who of you have been in Wisconsin?”, and it’s only one in 15. And I said, “Have you worked in Wisconsin?” “No, obviously not.” I have worked in Wisconsin, I have worked in Louisiana, and I have worked in North Carolina making films. And I have worked in Hawaii and I have worked in Alaska. I think there has to be attention, and better information, and a connection. The media has to report more about what is going on in the heartland. They are not mentioned. They do not factor in movies.
You see, we have had this huge problem in the Academy: there’s a complete lopsided presence of Latinos in the movies, of African Americans, of women, you just name it. And the Academy is very quickly on the right path to include them. Some of it is silly, but the general gist and approach is quite right. I think politics has to do something [similar] about the heartland. And it’s not just politics. I know many people here in Los Angeles who work in the film industry, but they grew up in Kansas. I said, “Do you have your buddies?” “Oh yeah, my school buddy is a farmer, and one is running a small company in Lansing, Michigan.” I said, get in touch with them, ask how they are doing, speak to them, embrace them. They are your buddies.
Let’s get to Fireball. Why meteorites?
It actually came through the collaboration with my co-director, Clive Oppenheimer, who is a scientist. He’s in volcanology, but he’s also a very fine geologist and reaches out into other branches of science. He proposed the film. I was instantly on board. I knew this was big, and it was kind of neglected, and we needed to make a different caliber of films with scientific content. Never get didactic. Never get boring. Have humor in it. Go wild. Get excited about what’s out there. And of course along with science and filmmaking, [what we have] in common is this relentless, vehement sense of awe. If you don’t have that, don’t make films. If you don’t have it, don’t become a scientist. So the collaboration was established within five seconds flat, when Clive Oppenheimer approached me. We had done a film before on volcanoes, Into the Inferno, so it was easy, easy, easy.
You’re a prolific filmmaker. How long does a documentary like Fireball—which spans the globe—take to produce? Do you juggle multiple projects at once?
No. When I’m at one project, it’s exclusively that one. It’s like a tunnel view. But in this case, you see what happens very often to documentary filmmakers. We had 35 target events and areas, and we narrowed it down to about 10 or 11. We didn’t shoot all the rest. But other filmmakers who do not know what they are doing would go everywhere and shoot everything and come up with hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage. We went in there, did good casting beforehand of the characters with whom we were filming—for example, a wild Jesuit brother [Guy Consolmagno] in the Vatican’s Castel Gandolfo, which is the summer residence of the Pope. A wild, imaginative guy and great in talking to him. We went in and shot for two hours, and that was that, and we moved on.
It took a longer time, because we went to Antarctica and Australia and the Alsace region of France, Hawaii—you just name it. And it required something that I don’t like very much, which is traveling a lot. I like to go to a place, stay there and film there for a long time, like doing a feature film like Fitzcarraldo, and spending a long time in the jungle, and I have to move a ship over a mountain. That takes time [laughs]. But this constant being on the move is something unhealthy and not good for our souls.
Has the filmmaking process gotten easier, or has it changed in some way?
You can’t really compare it. Many of my documentaries are feature films in disguise. Some of them are partly scripted and rehearsed and repeated and well-cast, and use stylization that you would normally not see in a documentary. But I want to do a different type of documentary that divorces itself from journalism. Almost everything we see today is a form of journalism, but documentaries can do much, much more than that. I’m after something different.
Are we destined to be wiped out by a meteorite? Or will we be extinct long before such a cataclysm?
It could happen, but it may be hundreds of millions of years away. We’ll finish each other off much quicker, through sheer stupidity or neglect of our planet, by creating an environmental crisis that will wipe us off the face of the Earth. Or nuclear holocaust, or depending too much on the internet. And by that, I don’t mean by social media—I mean our electricity grid, our power supplies, our food-chain supply, everything is connected to the internet. And if that’s wiped out, only hunter-gatherers will survive.
Speaking of extinction events, you use clips in Fireball from Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact. Are you a fan of that film?
I still haven’t seen the entire film [laughs]. I knew there was something hurtling toward us in a Hollywood movie and I asked for a download of 15 minutes of the film when the asteroid is actually coming at us. It’s well-shot, but of course it’s a Hollywood fantasy, and we have to make the distinction. It’s not going to happen like that. But it doesn’t matter. It’s movies, it’s the beauty of movies, and I have to acknowledge the way it was made. The visual effects were really good stuff, and you have to acknowledge that popular cinema has given us some wonderful, wonderful stuff.
This isn’t the first film where you use material shot by others—in this case, not only Deep Impact, but the video from Russian dash-cams. Is that out of necessity, or is there an artistic value to integrating others’ footage with your own?
Necessity. By coincidence, about 35 Russians filmed on their early-morning commute a meteorite on their dashboard cameras. Every Russian has a dashboard camera in his or her car. It dates back to the Yeltsin time, when Russia was nosediving into economic catastrophe, and Yeltsin sold out the country to organized crime. They called themselves oligarchs, but they were organized crime. And police were not paid, pensions were not paid, schoolteachers were not paid adequately. Police would stop you and say, “You ran this red traffic light, and it costs you 10 bucks or we’ll arrest you.” That’s how people started installing dashboard cameras—because they would say, “Officer, would you like to go to court with me, because I have the red traffic light which was actually green, on my dashboard camera.” So we owe [that footage] to Yeltsin. Only since Putin are teachers paid, pensions are paid, police is paid. We have to give him credit for that. Let’s not demonize him. Let’s give him some credit for that.
Of course, you cannot film these events. And it was very funny, because in our discussions with some other platforms—not Apple, which is releasing it on the 13th—we showed them these events from the dashboard cameras, and they said, “Unacceptable for us, because the digital quality is so low.” They said, “You have to film that in 4K.” And I said, fine, you know what we are going to do? I will put a 4K camera on Mount Rushmore, and I will sit back for 800,000 years, and maybe something is dashing by [laughs]. I’ll go to Antarctica, leave a camera there for 2 million years, and maybe I’m going to catch an event like that. So it was clear.
How did you get the footage from inside Mecca?
Another thing we wanted to film but we couldn’t was Mecca. Neither Clive Oppenheimer nor I are Muslims, and non-Muslims are not allowed to even set a foot in the holy city of Mecca, and we cannot go into the holiest of precincts around the Kaaba. We were planning to instruct a very intelligent, very fine young Saudi filmmaker to go for us and get footage of exactly what we had seen in another documentary. But instead of 3 seconds, we needed 30 seconds. Very precise instructions. But he never really got full permission, and then came the lockdown, and we were already in editing. So what I said to Clive is, we have to rely on footage shot by someone else.
Very simply, on YouTube, I discovered footage made by pilgrims, shot on their iPhones. I got in touch with one of these pilgrims and said your footage is wonderful and it shows the excitement of the Black Stone, and how everybody wants to touch it and kiss it, and you’re in the middle of this mayhem and energy. He took a long time. He wanted to know if we were making a film that is science-fiction, and wants to show that aliens had landed. If you want to do that, he said, you don’t have my permission. So we had to explain and explain it until the faithful actually had confidence that we would use it respectfully. We are not Muslims, but we do respect the veneration that is going in Mecca. We do respect the Black Stone as it is being venerated. So you have our word.
Streaming services like Apple TV+ are overflowing with long-form docuseries. Do you find those to be of interest?
I’m kind of into it, with a limited series on Fordlandia—Henry Ford transplanting small-town America in 1929 or so, into the Amazon jungle, trying to have access to rubber plantations. He acquired a territory larger than the state of Tennessee, bribing Brazilian authorities. And the whole thing ends up in a colossal failure, because Americana—the small-town Puritanical attitude—cannot be transplanted into the jungle.
Of course, nothing can be done at the moment, and it’s a huge thing. Whether it ever gets off the ground remains to be seen. But I like it because hardly anyone ever reads books anymore—nobody reads War and Peace, 900 pages. But you see these things now, in series of films, 10 one-hour films, that have a large arc of narration. Documentary series that have a large arc, a long breath, which we do not have when we read only tweets. Those are very, very quick sorts of exchanges. Or look into chat rooms on the internet—these monosyllabic exchanges of things, decorated by emojis, which have taken over spoken conversation. My next films will be feature films—they are screenplays, 1.5-2-hour single movie stories like all I’ve done so far. I do writing, I like poetry and I write stories, but the stories are not 900 pages like War and Peace.
You also act, as in last year’s The Mandalorian.
Sure. I love everything that has to do with cinema—including editing, writing and acting. And I’m not bad. When I accept a role, I know I would be alright for the part; I wouldn’t be ridiculous. Like Jack Reacher—I am scary on screen. As a private person, ask my wife, she will steadfastly maintain that I am a fluffy husband [laughs]. But on screen, I can be frightening.
The Mandalorian certainly takes advantage of your menacing screen presence. Was that how you came to the project—and do you see more acting in the future?
No, I never see anything coming at me. Because it comes out of the blue. I swear to God Almighty, I never have volunteered or been in a casting session. Tom Cruise and the director, Christopher McQuarrie, they both really wanted me very badly because they had seen me in the movie by Harmony Korine [Julien Donkey-Boy]—a very talented young filmmaker—and they wanted me in the film, and they dragged me into it. And The Mandalorian, it was Jon Favreau who is behind the entire franchise here at the moment, and he really wanted me very badly, and invited me to see the entire concept, and constructions, and costumes, and digital effects, and a new form of digital effects which brings cinema back to where it always has been and where it should be. It’s not green screen anymore; we can leave green screen behind. That was fascinating by itself—advancing the technology of cinema. And advancing the mythology that has sprung up with the Star Wars movies.