LIVE from the NYPL: Werner Herzog on Rogue Pursuits, Death Row, and Holy Land
Photo credit: Jori Klein
Werner Herzog is not an artist, and never was, in his opinion, but for those familiar with his films it is hard to imagine him as anything else. As the film authority Roger Ebert wrote, Herzog’s work speaks of “‘ecstatic truth,’ of a truth beyond the merely factual, a truth that records not the real world but the world as we dream it.” Yet after further contemplation of the rogue filmmaker’s daring work and equally bold life (he has eaten his own shoe, willingly flung himself on a cactus as part of a bet, and shot films on all seven continents), one can understand why he would rather be called a “soldier of cinema.”
As part of the series, LIVE from the NYPL, Herzog sat down with Paul Holdengräber to discuss his work with the impossible, the bleak, and the sublime. To introduce his guest, Holdengräber read Herzog’s seven-word, self-penned biography: “Werner Herzog, filmmaker, originated in Sachrang, Bavaria.” When both were comfortably seated on stage, Holdengräber lightly asked, “Why those seven words?” At first, Herzog, with a mischievous smile joked, “Well, it has to contain the name...” but then his face became serious, and he explained why. “Somehow I wanted to point to my origins, which is Sachrang, a small village in the mountains where my mother fled when Munich was under bombardment and I was only fourteen days old...My affinity to mountains has never left me. That’s my home. The mountains are my landscape,” said Herzog.
“And you go back to mountains, again, and again, and again,” astutely remarked Holdengräber. Whether he is exploring the Roraima Plateau in South America, with its vertical cliffs, brooding jungles, and alien rock formations, accompanied by his photographer wife, Lena Herzog (see her photographs), or dragging a boat across a mountain in the film, Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s affinity to constricted, impossible spaces permeates his work.
His latest project with death row inmates, Into the Abyss (which has been extended into a television series, On Death Row) is no different. As with previous projects, he is cinematically constrained: his interviews with the inmates are limited to fifty minutes, so he must assume the correct tone immediately. The camera cannot turn left or right to add any depth to shots, for there are only concrete walls and bars. Instead, the camera focuses unwaveringly on the inmate. “If you are boxed in, you tend to look very deep into the recesses of our soul, into the very dark, grim sort of abysses,” Herzog commented.
Yet, Herzog does not explore the guilt or innocence of those behind bars. While he makes it clear from the start that he is respectfully against the death penalty, he does not attempt to empathize with the inmates or exonerate them of their heinous and/or senseless crimes. Instead, he humanizes them, asking about their dreams, nightmares, and experience of time while on death row.
“They are not monsters. Their crimes are monstrous, but the perpetrators are always human beings, and I treat them with respect as a human being,” Herzog said in his Bavarian-accented English, “Its within the bandwidth of human beings to do the most atrocious things and do the most bizarre and senseless murders. It's part of our humanity."
Photo credit: Jori Klein
Even under the bleakest circumstances, Herzog masterfully elevates these stories to the sublime and renders grim landscapes poetic. “You have to watch the world with this intensity, with this love, and with this ecstatic passion,” Herzog told a rapt audience, “The world deserves it, and the passion will transform into movies.” Armed with this outlook, Herzog’s films expose unexpected sites of splendor to unaware eyes.
Spontaneously, Herzog illustrated his knack for recognizing such places with a pertinent example for the audience seated in the New York Public Library located in Bryant Park. “What’s under here, the deep underbelly of this library is magnificent and when you look under Bryant Park, there’s six or eight floors of millions of books. All of a sudden you are stepping on Bryant Park and under you is the knowledge of this planet. It’s physically stored. So, all of a sudden this Bryant Park where you are stepping, this is holy ground.” The packed room buzzed with immediate recognition, as if in unison exclaiming, “Ah-ha!”
The space quieted, and Herzog returned to the somber topic of his work with death row inmates and how it has affected him. “In a way death row films have not changed my life but they have changed [my] perspectives,” Herzog reflected. His face took on a veneer of solemnity as he recounted the conversation he had with one inmate who was granted a reprieve twenty-three minutes before his scheduled execution. In a soothing voice, Herzog described Skinner’s trip from the prison to the execution chamber, where, within this forsaken swath of Texas, even an empty gas station seemed sublime. Skinner had depicted what he thought would be his final trip with such awe that Herzog was inspired to take his camera on this same forty-three mile “route to death.”
With these heavy words, the lights dimmed, and Hank Skinner’s sobering journey appeared on screen. Colorful garden statues of Mary and Jesus appear, and Herzog as narrator describes the trip: "The landscape bleak, forlorn, and yet everything out there all of a sudden looked magnificent, as if entering the Holy Land, Hank Skinner's Holy Land." The camera slowly pans over a water tower painted like a red-and-white pinwheel, large and looming overhead. It passes by a spider-like T.V. satellite, and then a ramshackle bait shop tucked within woods. Finally, the camera freezes on a giant red crab statue with comically large sunglasses, and the screen fades to black. In his characteristic way, Herzog had revealed this route in Texas, otherwise unremarkable and forgettable, to be exotic and captivating, a place beaming with “ecstatic truth.”