Werner Herzog Stipetić, known as Werner Herzog, is a German screenwriter, film director, author, actor and opera director. Herzog is considered one of the greatest figures of the New German Cinema, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Schröter, and Wim Wenders.
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I'm Werner Herzog. Today, I released my MasterClass on filmmaking. You can see the trailer and enroll here:
Edit: Thank you for joining me at Reddit today! Of course there's lots of stuff out there in the Masterclass. So I shouldn't be speaking, it should be the Masterclass talking to you. Best of luck, goodbye !
Years removed from Grizzly Man, has your opinion of Timothy Treadwell changed at all?
No, I'm still in awe, and I think we still could be real friends, as far as our philosophy is apart from each other. He has given us footage that no Hollywood studio, no one with millions of dollars in terms of budgets could have given us. So I think if I stumbled upon his story, I would do it with the same respect, I would do it with the same awe, I would do it with the same sense of responsibility.
When you remade Nosferatu in 1979 did you have any qualms or anxieties with re-making such an iconic piece of cinema history? And how did you approach such a process?
Nosferatu is a vampire film loosely based on the film by Murnau, a film made in 1922, and it's one of the scariest and most beautiful silent films that you can ever see.
Now, for me as a young German filmmaker, growing up I was raised in a generation after the Second World War. We had no father figures. Our cinema fathers and our real fathers were all caught in the barbarism of the Nazi regime, and the best ones either were murdered or they were exiled, and Murnau was one of those. And I had the feeling, since we had no fathers and since we were orphans, I was an orphan in the flow of cultural history in Germany. There was something interrupted, and that was barbarism. I wanted to connect to the generation of the grandfathers. And for me having connected with the film, Nosferatu, I had the feeling all of the sudden that I had solid ground under my feet. This is why I feel thankful now of anything connecting, I'm going to do alright.
You once stated that to be a film maker one should read, read, read, read, read, read. In another instance, you said one should walk across Europe. I am surprised that you have made up a series of video lessons about film making. What can these videos provide that reading and walking cannot?
Well, I would say, reading is some kind of essential prerequisite to everything you do. Whether you are a scientist or a filmmaker, or just a normal human being working in a more "normal" profession. I cannot argue much about it. Read, read, read, read, read. The other side, traveling on foot, nobody does it and what I said will disappear into thin air any moment from now. Traveling on foot has actually given me insight into the world itself. The world reveals itself to one who travel on foot. I can give you one example, you start to understand the heart of men. I was, for a film, at the Johnson Space Center and had to take to five astronauts who had done a space mission in a space shuttle. I wanted to persuade them to be extras in the film in a very strange way. They were sitting in a semi circle when I was taken in and my heart sank that I didn't know "what should I say? what should I do?" I looked around and looked into their faces and all of a sudden I had the feeling, I understand these people. I understand the heart of these men and these women. I said "since I was a child, when I learned how to milk a cow with my own hands, I can tell that since I've traveled on foot and in the meadow first you milk a cow to have something to drink. I know by looking at faces, who is able to milk a cow." I looked at the pilot and said "you sir!" and he burst out in smiles and says "yes, I can milk a cow." Somehow when you make films, you understand the heart of men. In a way you cannot learn it, the world has to teach you. The world does it in it's most intense and deepest way when you when you encounter it by traveling on foot.
I'd like to add that when I travel by foot, I don't do it as a backpacker where you take all your household items with you, your tent, your sleeping bag, your cooking utensils. I travel without any luggage and I do not travel, let's say, the specific trail 2000 miles which is marked. I do traveling for very intense quests in my life. I do that on foot.
It may be hard to describe but what feelings passed between you and Kinski, deep in the Peruvian jungle when you had found out he had shot a gun towards the hut where your cast and crew were?
There's not much feeling you can allow yourself. The fact was that the excess deep in the jungle, after work, it was a tough day at work, played cards, we had some beer, we drank beer and we were laughing. Kinsky couldn't take it. He was on a hill nearby, all alone, and he wanted to have his absolute quiet around him. He screamed and yelled, and fired three shots from his Winchester. That's a serious, serious, weapon. Bullets went through these very thin bamboo walls of the hut but nobody got killed because about 40 extras were pretty much crammed in this one hut. He didn't kill anyone, he only shot the middle finger away from one of the guys. There's no feeling, there's no thinking, I just rushed and wrestled the gun away from Kinsky and that was that. I actually still have it and it's one of my prized possessions. Take him to the crowd and take the rifle from him, no feelings, no thinkings, nothing. Just stop that bozo.
What are some of your favorite non-fiction books? Are there any that, despite not being films, influenced your approach to documentary filmmaking?
Oh there are many. I do read a lot of history, much of it from antiquity; ancient Roman and ancient Greek historians. Something I make as a mandatory reading in my film school is a book called The Peregrine. The Peregrine was published in 1967 by a completely obscure British writer, and it's one of the most wonderful books I've ever read in my life.
First, it has prose of a quality that we have not seen since the short stories of Joseph Conrad. And secondly, what every filmmaker or every artist should have in him or her, is an incredible attention to something you love. In this case, a man watches Peregrine survive the brink of extinction, and the passion, the unbelievable passion for what he sees and how he deals with the birds, is just unbelievable. And that's how you should meet the world, and you can see it and read in the book, The Peregrine.
I also would advise, read books that everybody thinks are not that interesting. The Warren Commission Report on JFK's Assassination is one of the finest crime stories you can ever lay your hands on, and it has a logic in it that is phenomenal. So those things, for example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo's, The Conquest of New Spain. He was a frontman of the conquest of Mexico, and as an old man he wrote his biography, and it's filled full of unbelievably strange detailed, and I highly advise to read this, for example.
So, I could give you 5,000 more books but let's stop it right there
What film are you most proud of?
Well, you cannot really ask a mother, "Which one of your children are you most proud of". You love them all, I love all of them, my 72 or so films. And those who are the weakest--some of them are weak and some of them have defects, where they limp--and I defend them more than the others. So, I'm proud of them all.
Who is your favorite director?
Oh there are many of them. One of them, one of the all-time most wonderful filmmakers just died a few days ago, the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. If you ever have a chance to see at least two of his films, one of them is called Where Is the Friend's Home? and the other one is called Close-Up. If you can ever get ahold of these films, and you will find them easily on the internet, you will be awestruck and rewarded.
And then of course there's great filmmaking, great filmmakers in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Of course all in black and white and all silent movies. There are a couple of Japanese, like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, you just name it. Some wonderful Italian filmmakers. You have to dig into the favorites for yourself, don't learn it from me, because I do have my special friends, and I haven't seen that many films myself in my life. But, I could start and rattle down 15 more filmmakers.
Focusing on an idea seems to be the hardest thing for me and I'm sure others.. Is there any method or practice you use to help get focused on one idea to pursue for a picture?
That's hard to answer, because I do not follow ideas; I stumble into stories, or I stumble into people who all of the sudden, the situation makes it clear that this is so big, I have to make a film. Very often, films come with uninvited guests, I keep saying like burglars in the middle of the night. They're in your kitchen, something is stirring, you wake up at 3 AM and all of the sudden they come wildly swinging at you.
So, I try to--it's not focusing on ideas, but I know exactly what the problem this is. Once you have an idea, it wouldn't help to sit down and keep brooding, brooding, brooding...just live on but keep it in the back of your mind all the time. Keep connecting little bits and pieces that belong to it. Sometimes it's only a word, sometimes half a line of dialogue, sometimes an image that you squiggle down. And when it kind of in this way materializes, then press yourself with urgency.
When I write a screenplay, I write it when I have a whole film in front of my eyes, and it's very easy for me, and I can write very, very fast. It's almost like copying. But of course sometimes I push myself; I read myself into a frenzy of poetry, reading Chinese poets of the 8th and 9th century, reading old Icelandic poetry, reading some of the finest German poets like Hölderlin. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of my film, but I work myself up into this kind of frenzy of high-caliber language and concepts and beauty.
And then sometimes I push myself by playing music; in my place it would be, for example, a piano concerto, and I play it and I type on my laptop furiously. But all of it is not a real answer, how do you focus on single idea; I think you have to depart sometimes, and keep it all the time alive somehow.
Werner, apart from Joshua Oppenheimer, who are some of your favorite documentarians working today?
Well Joshua Oppenheimer, of course, would be pretty much on top of the list. You have to see The Act of Killing, and his next film, The Look of Silence. When you have a look at The Act of Killing, I do not remember that in the decade, or in two decades, I have seen a film of that caliber and that power. So he would be the one but, of course, Aaron Morris. He's an extraordinary talent, very very intelligent and has this kind of deep penetrating look. Some others, for example, in the 1950's, Jean Rouch, a french film maker who made a very strange film in what today is Ghana, at the time was a Gold Coast before it's independence. He made a film, The Mad Masters. It's a completely exploratory film. What I would like to point out in this case, Rouch only had a so called bouilloire camera, of course solenoid, didn't have a battery, had to wind it up, hand crank it and wind it up. Maximum length of a shot would be something like 25 seconds and only one single lense, and he made one of the best films ever made. I say this as an encouragement to young filmmakers. Don't look for the state of the art most expensive cameras. You should be capable today with fairly simple equipment of high caliber. You can edit on your own laptop, and you can make a film yourself for, let's say, even a feature film under $10,000. Learn from the documentary film school. Really didn't have any equipment or any money.
You’ve covered everything from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the impending overthrow of not-so-far-off futuristic artificial intelligence. What about humankind's history/capability terrifies you the most?
It's a difficult question, because it encompasses almost all of human history so far. What is interesting about this paleolithic cave is that we see with our own eyes the origins, the beginning of the modern human soul. These people were like us, and what their concept of art was, we do not really comprehend fully. We can only guess.
And of course now today, we are into almost futuristic moments where we create artificial intelligence and we may not even need other human beings anymore as companions. We can have fluffy robots, and we can have assistants who brew the coffee for us and serve us to the bed, and all these things. So we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are. And once we understand that, we can make our educated choices, and we can use our inner filters, our conceptual filters. How far would we use artificial intelligence? How far would we trust, for example into the logic of a self-driving car? Will it crash or not if we don't look after the steering wheel ourselves?
So, we should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books. Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that's how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life. Although, it seems to elude us into a pseudo-life, into a synthetic life out there in cyberspace, out there in social media. So it's good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely.
Hi Werner I'm a student in your masterclass. I know the bathtub scene in Gummo made you "nearly fall off your chair" but are there any other moments in cinema that have been so compelling you almost injured yourself?
In Morris's wonderful film about a pet cemetery, Gates of Heaven, there is one young man who looks into the camera and he says "well-", and it's about dying and death, and he says "well death is for the living and not for the dead, so much." Then all of a sudden the pictures behind him falls off the wall. It's just something where you can't believe your luck. Look out for those moments. They do not change the course of my life, they do not change anything, but these moments do make my life better.
Hello Mr. Herzog! I have signed up for the class and am very excited to get started. The most intriguing part of the class for me is the possibility that you may respond directly to students submitted work. My question is how much student work will you be able to personnally review compared to the amount of students that will likely be submitting work? Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge with us!
I have two answers. Number one, I'm a working man. At the moment I have 4 finished films, 3 are half finished films that I have to release, so I am a working man. At the same time, MasterClass, I always understood as some kind of work in progress. It should somehow continue. I have no clue how many requests, how many questions are coming in, verifying this, that or the other. I have no clue, it has not been published yet. Today, as I am sitting here, I think you can actually access it at masterclass.com,
Your course looks awesome, but if you had to teach a class in something other than filmmaking, what would it be?
Mathematics, but very very abstract works, like nothing but theory. I'd like to be into astronomy, I'd like to be in archaeology, I'd like to be into volcanos. In fact, I'm right now finishing a big film on volcanos. It's called Into the Inferno. It's such a fascinating field of research. Of course, something that has nothing to do with teaching, I would love to play music. I would love to learn how to play cello but you see I'm too old for that, you start learning it before you are 10. This has alluded me, it's a big gap in my life, a void. Let’s say I did learn the cello with the ease of how we are breathing. Today I would probably have been a teacher of music.
We all know your least favorite animals are chickens. But what is your favorite animal (and why)?
A falcon, for example, from the place where I live. There's a tall tree in the distance, and there's a wonderful falcon out there. And I love hummingbirds, when it comes to birds for example. What other animals do I like...I like cats, because they're so strange sometimes. And you see them on the internet, the crazy cat videos for example, and I'm a fan of them. What else, what other animals? Well that's basically it.
I like animals, but when it comes to chickens, they are so stupid. And it's easy to hypnotize them. Put their beak on the ground, hold them and draw a quick, straight line away from their beak onto the ground, onto the pavement, and they'll stay there frozen and hypnotized!
Unfortunately, this is not in my Masterclass. I think there are certain things you cannot learn in my Masterclass.
Mr. Herzog, what tips would you give to amateur filmmakers?
Well give me six hours non-stop and I would wait. In this case I would advise connect with masterclass.com and take a look yourself. It's got hundred and dozens of tricks and practical advice in there. Let me give you one thing in general, find your own voice and don't be afraid of doing it because there is no such thing as amateur film making. You are making films for others, not just for your family to for your siblings. make your films for a wider audience. You will find a platform on the internet, don't be afraid, just go for it. Maintain your own identity as a filmmaker.
Hi Mr. Herzog.
With the advent of HD camcorders and DSLRs, do you feel the market is oversaturated, or that there are more talented filmmakers being discovered?
That's an interesting concept and question. Has photography very subtly improved because we do have 3.5 billion people who use their cell phones and take photos and all sorts of things? I don't believe that the art of photography has improved much. It's the same thing as its value in filmmaking. I do not believe that we have found the completely hidden unknowns who all of the sudden, who through a cheap digital cameras, make their movies. They would emerge no matter what, whether they have a cell phone or a video camera.
However, I must say, we have seen some good surprises, and sometimes you see them on Youtube of all places. But not really that it has advanced the art of filmmaking much.
Where did you get the blazer you wear in your Masterclass videos? It's a beautiful piece.
I just wanted to show flair and this is a Bavarian jacket. I bought it in Munich, and I'm proud to show my cultural background, at least giving a slight signal. Because I believe all my films deep in their heart are Bavarian movies. For example, when you speak about England and Scotland, Scottish people would have their own culture, their own language, their own way of life. Hard drinking, hard fighting, with very wonderful hearts. And Bavarian filmmaking has exuberant, something full of fantasies, full of depth and surprises. So it's a jacket that I got in Munich, and I'm proud that I'm wearing it during the Masterclass.
What did you learn in creating the curriculum for your MasterClass?
I did not learn anything! I'm self taught. I'm out there somehow presenting something to aspiring young filmmakers. The curriculum itself was never much on my mind. I just went into the elements of filmmaking like scouting locations, finding a way to deal with crazy actors, understanding to manage finances, and understanding all sorts of things, music, editing. The elements of the curriculum came automatically. It's obvious the important things in filmmaking and you can find it all in this course in masterclass.com. Otherwise I will teach crazy things, the real life stuff, in my rogue film school that I founded, a different type of teaching. It's one on one, it's people whom I physically have in front of me and it goes much wider into guerilla filmmaking. In other words, I will teach you how to pick a safety lock, I will teach you how to forge a shooting a document, allowing you to film and things like that. Masterclass.com has, in a way, the whole tapestry of what is necessary to be a film maker and I did my best never learned, in film school myself, never was assistant, but I felt completely confident to do this. You have to see in the backgrounds. In the last 2 decades more young people has approached me, and I mean thousands, who would like a position in one of my crews, maybe as an intern, or learn from me. I'm trying to give an organized answer to all these many people out there who want to learn from me. It was like a avalanche and now there's a systematic answer.
Did you help write the scenes you were in in Mister Lonely? The broken nation speech was one of the most beautiful scenes and monologues I can think of in any film.
Frankly speaking, I do not recall that.
Normally, I have to invent my dialogues right then and there. I do remember there was a scene in Julien Donkey-Boy, I'm sitting with my family--a crazed grandmother, a son who is insane and has impregnated his sister, and a younger brother who's a loser--and I'm sitting there, and three or four cameras are already switched on, and I turned to Harmony and asked him, "Harmony, tell me what's the dialogue?" And he just turned to me and he said, "Werner, speak." So I had to make it up right then and there.
Most of the time I think it was invention by me, but sometimes of course he had some dialogues prewritten, and I do not recall this particular one.
Do you have any idea when Queen of the Desert will get a US release?
Unfortunately I don't. There was a problem between the production company and the studio. The film reverted back to the production company after there was some disagreement over money and all sorts of things. Hopefully by the end of the year it will be time. I has been shown in some countries, Germany for example. It should be out in theaters. I'm anxious to see it on screen.
Why did you choose to focus on Gertrude Bell's personal life/romances in Queen of the Desert?
Yeah, that was a very clear decision not to create a biopic. You see biopics normally do not work when in movies. Of course their are exceptions, for example Gandhi. Audiences would see a biopic let’s say on television but in this case it was a big epic feature film that I wanted to have on big screens and I was very fascinated by the emotional life of Gertrude Bell, I was interested in the tragedy of her love stories, I was interested in her poetry. A lot of the film is about poetry and translating poetry. It's a lot about solitude, it's a lot about empty spaces, it's a lot about music. These elements are more interesting than just a simple biopic. That has created some controversy but I must say I don't really care, I believe the film is beautiful as it is. We have phenomenal acting in it, Nicole Kidman and some of her great male stars like Robert Pattinson, James Franco, and Damian Lewis. It's a film that set it's course from the very beginning, don't do a biopic, go for what's much more fascinating.
If it is possible to put into words, I would like to ask you how you feel your fundamental philosophy towards creating a moving picture has changed from when you started, to your more recent creations?
Well, I started very early. In fact when I was a teenager--and you have to understand that I had no background in cinema--in other words I saw my first film when I was 11, when a traveling projectionist arrived at the schoolhouse in the mountains in Bavaria. I didn't even know that cinema existed until I was 11, so I didn't see many films, and I started very early to make my own films. It's an odd thing.
Of course I grew up with my own films. As a teenager, as a young kid, I made my first film when I was 19. By the way, I made my first phone call when I was 17. Nobody can believe it nowadays. And when you're 19, and now at my age, I have worked in the profession half a century now, of course you grow up and you change, and you still...I must say, I don't recognize my voice. I do still recognize my worldview. Very basic things have never really changed. A certain combative attitude helped too; my type of film projects have never changed.
But of course when you see my most recent films, you would instantly see that it's a film by Werner Herzog. You could tell. But I have not trodden the same path all through my life. I have not made Aguirre 2, 3, 4, or 5, or Fitzcarraldo 6, 7, 8, or 12. And yet, there's something very coherent in my filmmaking.
Hey Mr. Herzog! I'm very excited for your MasterClass! Who is the one person who taught you the most about filmmaking?
It's an odd question for me because, in a way since I'm so self-taught, and since I came into contact with cinema fairly late in my youth, I always had the feeling I was sort of the inventor of cinema itself. It sounds kind of crazy or not right, as if I was not right in my mind, but until today, I couldn't care less about the rules of anything since I developed it all on my own.
So it's not really a single person who taught me about cinema. However, of course there are filmmakers, great filmmakers, who didn't really influence me but encouraged me. Somebody like Luis Buñuel, or somebody like Kurosawa, or somebody like Dreyer, a Danish filmmaker who made the incredible silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, or for example Elia Kazan, films like Viva Zapata!, which is a phenomenal film, and some other stuff.
I cannot say that there was really anybody who taught me most; nobody taught me anything.