During his remarkable 40-year career, Werner Herzog has made some of world cinema’s boldest films — including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Stroszek, Fitzcaraldo, and a remake of Nosferatu. In recent years, he’s approached mainstream success in the United States, with the eccentric documentary Grizzly Man and the Vietnam war film Rescue Dawn, which starred Christian Bale. His latest, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, features Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes in the tale of a cop who tries to solve a brutal murder and keep his grip on reality while battling drug addiction, gambling debts, and familial woes.
It’s not just the quality of Herzog’s films that’s made him a favorite of movie buffs; Herzog has become legendary for his exploits both on and off the set. He once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever finished his documentary Gates of Heaven, and followed up on the bet when filming was completed. He was shot by an air rifle on the grounds of his home while doing an interview with the BBC. During the making of Fitzcarraldo, filming was interrupted by a border dispute between Ecuador and Peru; two members of his crew survived plane crashes; his original leading man, Jason Robards, was hospitalized halfway through shooting, and Robards’ replacement, the legendary Klaus Kinski, was so combative on the set that a group of native extras asked Herzog if they could kill him (these and other tales are detailed in Herzog’s documentary, My Best Fiend), and engineers told him it was impossible to pull a steamship over the side of a hill with the system of ropes and pulleys he was using — and Herzog proved them wrong. Even his latest release has generated its share of controversy: Abel Ferrara, the director of the original Bad Lieutenant, said he hoped the makers of Port of Call: New Orleans would die in an explosion — despite the fact that Herzog says the film is not a remake, since he’s never seen Ferrara’s movie.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Herzog shared some of his favorite films, and discussed his attraction to film noir, how his films are “secretly mainstream,” and the differences between working with Nicolas Cage and Klaus Kinski.
It is probably the only film that I’ve ever seen which has something like a perfect balance, which does not occur in filmmaking very often. You sense it sometimes in great music, but I haven’t experienced it in cinema, and it’s mind boggling. I don’t know how [Akira] Kurosawa did it. It’s still a mystery to me. That’s greatness.
RT: I wanted to let you know that Rotten Tomatoes released our list of the best reviewed vampire films of all time, and your version of Nosferatu was number three.
Werner Herzog: Ah, and which is number one and two?
The original Nosferatu…
Oh yeah, that has to be number one, of course.
…and Let the Right One In.
It’s okay. I do not need to occupy number two, three, four, and five.
What was the impulse to remake Nosferatu?
Well, I needed to connect to the great films of the grandfather generation, because our parents, our father generation, was a complete disaster and many of them sided with the barbarism of the Nazis. Somehow, you can only really make films embedded in the history of your own culture, and history was disrupted dramatically by the most barbaric regime you can ever find anywhere. So for me it was important to get some solid ground under my feet, connect with the grandfathers, connect with the greatest of them, and in my opinion, the greatest of great films is Nosferatu by [F.W.] Murnau, which I should include in the greatest five films of all time.
Next, Herzog talks about creating working with Nicolas Cage vs. working with Klaus Kinski, and what he thinks of critics.
RT: What initially attracted you to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?
Werner Herzog: Well, it’s funny because I think Rotten Tomatoes was only for audiences venting their anger and their disgust. [laughs] I’m surprised that you’re asking serious questions. No, I can make it short. Number one, shooting in New Orleans. Working with Nicolas Cage, I think it can’t get any better. It was clear very, very quickly that we would do this soon together.
While I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that Nicolas Cage had some of the same intensity, the sullen eyes, of Klaus Kinski. Was that intentional?
No, no. They had nothing to do with each other. Kinski’s so different, we can only say very few in film history who have this kind of presence on the screen and this kind of intensity. Maybe early Marlon Brando, Nicolas Cage, Kinski, and you’re almost at the end of naming others. But, you see, Kinski never had any humor; in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it is absolutely hilarious. He’s so vile and so debased that it really connects with an audience, and there’s a very dark humor about it. It’s the most hilarious film you can ever see. When you see Kinski, it’s never hilarious; he’s just driven by whatever. And Nicolas Cage, I told him there’s such a thing as the bliss of evil; that’s what we are heading for.
Are you uncomfortable with comparisons between your new work and your older work?
No, but what sort of insight would it give us?
So you think that each film should be taken on its own.
No, not necessarily, because of course, when you look at the films i have made… I just had a big retrospective in Paris as the Centre Pompidou; they showed 56 or so of my films, and all of a sudden you get the feeling that yes, they all belong together somehow. In which way, I don’t know; it’s still mysterious to me. But it’s obvious they belong together.
You’ve answered a lot of questions about whether or not Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a remake. Obviously, other than some underlying themes, there aren’t a whole lot of similarities with Abel Ferrara’s film.
It’s not a remake. It was simply that one of the producers had the rights to the title, and they hoped for a franchise. I’ve never seen Abel Ferrara’s film, but what is wonderful about moviemaking is that he came out swinging. [laughs] He’s quite a character, apparently. And I enjoy a baseball game where the benches clear and the manager of the team rushes up to the umpire and yells at him from five inches apart, and then steps back and kicks dust — well, you see, that’s baseball, and I love baseball for it. I hardly understand the game, and I hardly follow who is winning and why, but those are the moments that are the greatest joy you can have in a ballpark. And I think it’s similar with show business, with movies. We are into moviemaking, and that’s wonderful — and of course, Ferrara by now apparently has seen the film and has been reconciled. But, whatever, I’ve never met him.
So you didn’t take it personally when he came out swinging.
No, no, no, because I knew it had nothing to do with his film. But now everybody knows it.
Obviously there’s a film noir-ish element to this movie.
It’s a real noir, but it’s a new step in film noir.
I think film noir, when you look at the late 1940s, early 1950s — Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, whom I love, and others, James Cagney — the abyss of the human soul is always something oppressive, oppressive on human beings, oppressive on society, something really dark. And here, there’s a lighter touch to it, something that gets so bad, so debased, so vile, that it’s just completely hilarious. The joy of doing evil. [laughs] And not the feelings of guilt to do evil, and not feeling oppressed by the evil.
Your last couple of films have been slightly more Hollywood, or at least within the system to a greater degree. Has that changed your filmmaking process at all?
No, I’ve always made mainstream movies. Some of them have been, as I call it, “secretly mainstream.” Let’s say, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God — it’s a film I made in 1971 — that was probably at a time when the parents of those accessing Rotten Tomatoes just left high school, and nobody wanted to see the film at the time. Today, it’s sort of a household name, and it has reached very wide audiences worldwide. So in a way, I think I’ve always been mainstream, and some of the big Hollywood movies seem to me bizarre and marginal in contrast to me, as if I were the center and they were all bizarre and marginal.
Bad Lieutenant is a noir, and your next movie, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is a horror film. Are you now trying to play with cinematic form?
No, no. You see I never planned a career like others would do. [Movie projects] are coming at me like burglars in the night — uninvited guests, home invasion.
So making a horror film isn’t some sort of next step. It’s just sort of how it develops.
Well, My Son, My Son is based on a long-dormant screenplay that I wrote together with a friend, and the time was right to do it right away, so I made — actually in the last 11 months, I’ve made three films, and I’ve staged an opera in Spain, and I started my Rogue Film School, and I released the English version of Conquest of the Useless, my book [about the making of Fitzcarraldo]. Anyway, so I’m not hectic; I just work steadily and I love what I do. But while we are talking, five or six other films are pushing me already, and I don’t know how to deal with it quickly enough.
So what else are you working on?
Give me two hours and I’ll tell you. No, there’s quite a few projects pushing me already.
Is your approach any different when you’re making a feature film and when you’re making a documentary?
In some cases, yes, but let’s face it: Many of my documentaries are feature films in disguise.
I’m sure people have asked you this before, but do you ever ask yourself, “Why did this crazy stuff happen while I was making this movie?” Do you think a certain amount of risk is part of the process?
Well, if there is a project where you know certain risks are involved, whatever is thrown at you, you have to deal with it, and you have to have the nerve and the courage to do it. But, for example, a film like Bad Lieutenant, I always work like it’s open heart surgery: very focused, very quiet, very quick — as a matter of fact, most of my shooting days were over in the early afternoon, because I only shoot what I really need showing on the screen, so I do not cover all angles and all those kinds of things. But in some projects, of course, I have attracted disasters that were not made or not self-inflicted. When you run into a border war between Peru and Ecuador, you cannot foresee it; nobody foresaw it in my camp that I had built for 1,100 people — mostly native extras — that were attacked and burnt to the ground. And I had two plane crashes. You see, you do not plan a plane crash, and then I had two. For example, I shot the film halfway, and my leading actor became ill, had to be flown out to the United States, and his doctors wouldn’t allow him to return, so we had to start all over again from scratch. So these are things which happen, but you have to cope with it and you have to have the perseverance and the courage to start all over again and finish it anyway. You see, I’m one of those who works and delivers, and I’ve never complained.
So there wasn’t any sort of wacky stuff on the set of this one, then. This was a relatively laid back experience.
Wacky stuff — you love to hear about these things, I know that. You’re Rotten Tomatoes, and you want to dig into the rotten apple. [laughs] No, I’m joking. What can I say? No, I have done films that had a certain ambition. If you have to put a huge steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon jungle, you know this is going to be complicated, there will be difficulties, there will be technical setbacks, there will be whatever. But once you are going for it, there is a point of no return. You have to take on whatever is going to come at you.
What did the shoe taste like?
I do not remember. I only remember that we stuffed it with a lot of garlic, and since I cooked it in duck fat, which was the main course at Chez Panisse, this famous restaurant in the Bay Area, but the duck fat actually heats at much higher temperatures than water when it boils, but it made the leather shrink, and it became tougher and tougher, and I could only eat it by cutting it in little pieces with a pair of poultry shears. So in order to swallow it down, I think I had at least or more than a six pack of beer to gulp it down. I only remember that I was pretty drunk after this whole thing, and I don’t remember much of the taste. The actual taste was more beer than anything.
Do you ever miss working with Kinski?
No. We made five films and as I said quite a few times, every grey hair on my head I call Kinski. [chuckles] No, it was also wonderful to work with him, even though he was the biggest of all pestilences, and I mean borderline paranoid, and throwing hysterical tantrums three, four, five times a day. But I always knew it was worthwhile, because he was such a tremendously gifted man. He had the grace of God upon him. Nicolas Cage is one of those who has some sort of grace upon him, and you don’t know where it comes from. There are few people who have it.
You’ve never had much of a use for the academic or critical side of cinema, right?
No, no, no. Of course not. Why should I? It doesn’t make a film better or worse. A good review doesn’t make a film better, and a bad review doesn’t make it into a bad film if it has substance, you see. Aguirre, the Wrath of God was voted the worst film of the decade in Germany. Back then I had the feeling, “They’re all wrong! They’re idiots! They’re all wrong!” But I’ve really never worried. I don’t worry about being exposed to the vitriolic sort of attacks upon me. I’m ready to take them on.
The film critic Lotte Eisner told you to keep going after some of your early films didn’t get the love you’d hoped for…
It wasn’t love. They were utterly, completely, desperately ignored, and nobody ever came! So she was a really encouraging voice. She kept me going for a decade by making a strong statement. And I travelled on foot from Munich to Paris when she was dying — I wouldn’t allow her to die. I walked, like, in a pilgrimage, and when I arrived she was out of the hospital. She lived another eight years until she was almost 90!
I know I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to ask you about some of these things that have happened to you. Do you ever tire of telling these old stories?
No, I haven’t spoken about Lotte Eisner for at least a decade. It just came to mind. Let’s face it: I’ve lived my life through the films, and there’s nothing wrong to talk about it and get it across to an audience. That is part of the profession of a filmmaker.