At one point in “Fitzcarraldo,” Klaus Kinski’s character has a throw-away line where he notes “Respectability made me bankrupt; I’m better off there, down by the river.” And I’m wondering where you are between respectability and the river at this point in your life?
(Laughs.) I’ve never left the river.
You never left the river?
No, I’ve always been right in life itself, doing my battles and soldiering on; I don’t really care much about respectability. I was invited to get, for example, an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, and I refused.
Because? Because you could be shooting?
No… I’m not the man for this kind of respectability. (Laughs) It doesn’t fit me! Do you think “Dr. Herzog” would be fitting for me? No, it wouldn’t!
I think, considering some of the other people who have gotten honorary degrees in the past, you might be classing it up a little bit, quite frankly…
No, no, no; I’m not the guy who’s made for it. My argument is that I’m so much against academia, let’s say, in filmmaking, in film schools, that I had to found my own Rogue Film School, which is really an absolute contrast to what is happening in film schools worldwide. In particular when it comes to film studies and film theory, it’s just a destructive force out there that tries to stifle the small flames of poetry in cinema.
There’s a discussion of how typing is not writing; writing is the editing process, the cutting, as opposed to just typing. So you know what you want and get it.
Yes, but: you still have to keep open to surprises; you cannot plan everything. In “Into the Abyss,”—and I keep speaking about it because there’s not a single person in the film I knew more than 60 minutes in my life—no preparation, no life after, no meetings after or before; in front of the camera I would meet the people and get the best out of them. One example where it doesn’t fit, one pregnant woman—who was pregnant from one of the perpetrators—asked me to meet her over lunch, because she was suspicious — who was I, what was my plan? So I met her for an hour and a half for lunch, before I was shooting. That’s the only exception.
That movie has that incredible moment where you just start talking to a gentleman about a squirrel…
… and that’s what you can’t learn in film school. He’s the chaplain in the death chamber, present as the last man present with a prisoner who’s dying. And he comes rushing to my set, and I identify him—we spoke briefly on the phone—and I say, “I’m Werner Herzog, is it okay that we put you in front of these concrete crosses of buried inmates who were not claimed by families?” He says “Yeah, yeah, yeah, quick, quick…”—the first thing he says is “Quick, quick.” Tapping his wrist watch, because he had to; what I didn’t know was that he had to be in the death chamber in 40 minutes, and I had 20 minutes with him. And he starts to talk in front of the camera like a phony TV preacher—how beautiful God’s creation is, and that everybody will be redeemed, and everybody will find the mercy of God in paradise—I disagree with that, but anyway—and he speaks about being at the golf course, and squirrels, and a horse looking at him and he would see deer and switch off his cellphone. And I interrupt him; from behind the camera, I’m asking “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” And all of a sudden, he’s hit by lightning, and he unravels, and he becomes very human and very deep—and this is something you will never learn in film school; you do not. You cannot learn it in film school; you can only learn it out at the raging river out there in life; you have to find the heart of men; what is going to break them open? And I’m asking a question no one would ever, ever, ever ask—no journalist, no filmmaker would ever ask “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.”