My first taste of Werner Herzog inspired admiration and curiosity. Watching Grizzly Man (2005), his documentary about conservationist fanatic Timothy Treadwell, I became aware of Herzog’s talent for locating truth. Treadwell spent his summers with Alaskan grizzly bears, obsessed by their habits and mating rituals, until one of the bears devoured him. Among others, Herzog interviewed Treadwell’s longest-serving ex-girlfriend. His very first question was: ‘Do you feel like Timothy Treadwell’s widow?’ The expression on the woman’s face was suddenly illuminated by a self-reflexive epiphany. ‘Yes,’ she answered. You could tell that no one had ever used the word ‘widow’ to describe her predicament, because the term was tied up to notions of a partnership consummated by marital status, and yet these five letters penetrated to the very depths of how this woman felt. I was in awe. Herzog’s ability to discern another human being’s reality astonished me. It went beyond simply being articulate. Here was a man attuned to the secret frequencies of those around him, providing relief to a specific form of suffering with its acknowledgement. How did he get like that? How has he avoided getting desensitised like the rest of us?
There is a moment in Encounters at the End of the World (2007), his documentary about inhabitants of the South Pole, where Herzog is sitting in front of a video monitor with a scientist who investigates marine life under the polar icecaps. It’s common knowledge that almost all animals in the wild live under constant stress with not enough to eat, and will die violent and bloody deaths. In Grizzly Man, Herzog’s voiceover narration informs us: ‘I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.’ Underwater, the violence and competition we observe on land is more intense. Under the polar icecaps, marine life is even more hostile, and as Herzog observes these aggressive creatures on the video monitor, he asks the scientist: ‘Is this why we crawled out of the water?’ It’s a simple connection, but only Herzog could make it so nonchalantly. Who views life in such a holistic way? How many people can relate themselves to marine life under the polar icecaps? I mean, some people can’t relate to other people.
My next encounter with Herzog was Bad Lieutenant (2009), his freewheeling remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film of the same name. It is, in my opinion, a perfect movie—a masterpiece of sorts with not a single layer of fat. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance as a cop who develops a back injury in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He starts off with Vicodin (a popular painkiller in the US), then begins to steal cocaine from the police evidence room, then accidently switches to heroin and, by the film’s final third, has a lucky crack pipe. There is a scene where he hallucinates about iguanas on a table, another where he tells the local kingpin to shoot a dead man because ‘his soul is still dancing’. I watched the film for the third time on the big screen at The Big Chill inside BFI’s tent, under the influence, of course, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
By the time I found out Herzog was going to be in Cambridge the tickets had sold out, but the Arts Picturehouse’s manager was kind enough to let me attend the event. Isn’t it strange how smaller chains treat you better? Herzog was in town to promote his new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011); a documentary about the Chauvet caves in Southern France. After the screening, and just before the Q&A session, I saw the man himself in the foyer, signing autographs and receiving laudatory comments. Inside the main screen, Herzog sat on stage alongside the archaeologist Christopher Chippendale and a panel leader, on the right-hand-side from the audience’s viewpoint.
The last time I saw a Herzog film was at a press screening of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009), as the guest of a friend of mine who was reviewing it for a website. That picture was offensively Herzogian, bordering on self-parody with its strangeness, crazed characters and animal cameos, none of which worked. By the time the titles came up, my friend turned to me and said: ‘He’s actually done it. Herzog has made a bad film.’ Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Herzogian in the best possible way. It lets us penetrate the filmmaker’s thought process, while surrounding us with images of profound beauty and meaning. Like the 3D camera that descends into the Chauvet cave to witness the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind, the film takes us on a journey of ideas so vast that they have survived many millennia of evolution and extinction.
Watching the film, I noticed two things of interest. The first is how easily Herzog manages to access the philosophers inside of the people he interviews. A young French archaeologist with a ponytail begins to recount the dreams he had after visiting the cave for the first time, of lions in pictorial and physical form. ‘But I was not scared,’ he admits, and you can feel the glint in Herzog’s eyes at hearing such a story. The second is this basic but rather powerful recurring idea in Herzog’s films of sensing how, I dare not say ‘special’, but certainly successful we have been as a species. During the Q&A, the film director talked about what differentiates a human being from the cow in a field: ‘Storytelling, religion…’ (‘Are they not the same thing?’ I began to wonder.) Then Herzog made a statement only he can get away with: ‘I doubt that cows believe in Jesus.’ Celebratory laughter followed, and I was not immune to it.
Herzog didn’t stay for long and took as many questions as Julian Assange answered at the Cambridge Union last week. The fate of successful men is to be permanent in our consciousness but fleeting in person. I guess that a little Herzog goes a long way. My favourite part of the Q&A involved the story about his grandfather, who suffered from something resembling Alzheimer’s during his final years. His wife – little Werner’s grandmother – refused to confine him to an asylum. She had lived with this man for too long to let him go now, no matter what his mental state appeared to be. The grandfather used to underline passages in books, but now he underscored texts in their entirety. He did not recognise his wife and called her Madam. One day, as he stood up from the dinner table, he told her: ‘Madam, if I were not married, I would ask for your hand.’ Herzog’s films are filled with madmen and dreamers, and this personal account of his childhood memories resonated with what I know of his oeuvre quite movingly.
My fascination with Werner Herzog continues. Roger Ebert, whom I quote frequently, described the film director as a man ‘made restless by caution’. His engagement with the world around us allows him to connect the dots with precision, sympathy and fearlessness. As with most great people I have had the pleasure to know, his ideas and rhythms of speech escape the term ‘conditioned’. His filmmaking practices allow the viewer to enter the processes of artistic, ideological and spiritual creation. The innate self-reflexivity of his work is astounding; you never feel him saying something he does not believe in, for the sake of the effect his words might produce. If indeed the universe is hostile, chaotic and murderous, our ability to recognise our place within it, and our desire to document the experience, may be nature’s greatest triumph. Werner Herzog would’ve said it better.