Prolific is barely the word for Werner Herzog, whose latest profound, existentialist documentary, Into the Abyss, is released in UK cinemas today. Meanwhile, a four-part companion television series (the more pragmatically titled Death Row) is midway through its airing on Channel 4. Add to that the fact that he’s narrated an upcoming, and slightly surreal, dinosaur documentary (Dinotasia) and recently filmed his role as the main villain in an upcoming Tom Cruise movie (cheerfully describing himself as a “paid stooge”). It’s a fact that almost (if not quite) makes it understandable that the veteran filmmaker has most certainly made more films than he’s ever seen.
“I’m a working man, let’s face it. I’ve done six films last year and I’ve acted in a movie and I run my Rogue Film School and all sorts of other things as well,” says the man who has also found time to direct more than a dozen operas in the last two decades. “I’ve never really seen that many films. I read.” This lack of time and apparent interest in the wider world of cinema accounts for why Herzog sees no more than three films in any given year. “The strange thing is, I’m a member of the Academy and I get the ballot each year to vote for the Academy Awards. And I don’t vote… It ends up with 35 films up for nomination and I cannot vote because I’ve seen exactly two of all those films. It wouldn’t be right if I voted.”
It’s been well documented that, having grown up in a remote Bavarian mountaintop village (“we didn’t have a cinema… we didn’t even have running water”), Herzog did not encounter film until relatively late. In fact he claims he hadn’t heard of cinema until, whilst aged 11, a travelling projectionist pulled up to his one-classroom provincial school and showed the children footage of men building an igloo. “It didn’t impress me at all and I could immediately see they’d done a bad job”, he recalls in his distinctive brogue.
But that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing a remarkable career within cinema, directing documentaries as acclaimed as Grizzly Man and features as masterful as Fitzcarraldo - though he is at pains to stress the lack of any difference between the two disciplines: “for me, it’s all movies. I don’t make the distinction as you would do it.” If anything he thinks of his documentaries as “features in disguise”. Though he has been clear on his filmmaker “destiny” (he seems uneasy using the word) since childhood, there is, he claims, nothing like a career plan at work. Instead most film ideas come to him “like burglars in the night”, an evocative metaphor that he was happy to elaborate on: “you wake up and the kitchen is full of three or four burglars and suddenly one of them is swinging at you and you have to deal with it.” Fitting, in a world a chaotic as Herzog’s frequently appears to be, that even his description of inspiration (often perceived as a flower or a deity) is fraught with violence and disorder.
Though he explained that the subject of Into the Abyss – the violent crime of death row inmate Michael Perry (executed 8 days after Herzog’s interview) – was encountered in a rather more deliberate, even traditional, fashion – perhaps explaining why it’s one of his most restrained documentaries to date. “I looked up cases of men who were on death row, and one woman as well with whom I made a film [a particularly difficult episode of Death Row], and this one immediately struck me because of its senselessness – the crime is so senseless and nihilistic.”
He is referring to the 2001 murders for which Perry and friend Jason Burkett (also featured in the film, serving a life sentence) were convicted, which saw the men murder a woman in her home in order to steal a fairly unspectacular car. It’s made even more horrific by the fact that, having been locked out of the lady’s gated community whilst disposing of her body, the two men then executed two other young guys simply in order to regain access to the vehicle. “It’s so very hard to understand how it can happen, something so nihilistic. Something frightening and inexplicable.” Even after time spent with Perry and Burkett – as well as victims, relatives and witnesses – Herzog remains equally struck by the utter pointlessness of the crime: “It’s so foreign to me that I’m stunned by it.”
Though I suspect most would be similarly “stunned” by the crimes depicted in Into the Abyss, it still comes as a surprise to hear Herzog self-apply that feeling of bewilderment. After all, this is the seemingly unflappable man who has been shot at during an interview (remarking at the time that it was “only a minor bullet”) and who, in 1977, ran towards the crater of a volcano predicted to be on the verge of eruption. The short documentary film based on the latter event, La Soufriere, feels extreme and foolhardy, as the young filmmaker took his crew into the heart of a small Guadeloupe island which had been evacuated by the inhabitants – even if it’s an act that was vindicated by the sheer beauty of the film. But Herzog is without doubt he would do the exact same today, more than 30 years later and heading towards his 70th birthday.
“If necessary, yes [I would do the same today]. Not that I seek it, but I would be the last one to shy away from it. But I’m a professional man and I’m good at minimizing dangers,” he says, though I can’t help but wonder if Herzog’s version of danger is somewhat different to my own. Yet before he can be questioned on this penchant for life’s extremes he offers something poetic and romantic: “Volcanoes have not left my imagination. I may do something about volcanoes again. In fact, in two hours I’m going to meet a wonderful, great volcanologist from Cambridge University… I’m not done with volcanoes.”
I discover that the volcanologist he’s referring to is Clive Oppenheimer – a man who he befriended in Antarctica (at the crater of an active volcano, no less) during the filming of the brilliant Encounters at the End of the World. “We have been in contact ever since,” he says – and I don’t doubt it. Herzog has a way with people. An ability to empathize with some of the world’s most extreme characters has long been his trademark. And though he once, famously, threatened to shoot Klaus Kinski dead on a remote jungle film set, it is not difficult to understand his appeal. “I’m good in discourse,” he explains, recalling how – during shooting Abyss – guards in the Texas maximum security prison would allow him extra conveniences they would not permit other film crews. For instance, they brought microphones to Perry and co behind the fortified glass barrier. “I can deal with situations like this easily.”
“I’m prepared for anything, no matter what. You can throw anything at me, I’ll deal with it.” It’s quite apparent during Into the Abyss that nothing his subjects say could phase him, or throw him off his game. Yet he is not as immune to the emotion of the subject matter as one might assume given his steely resolve and talent for unearthing absurdity in the most distressing of circumstances. “The upsetting moment comes in editing. That’s when it gets scary. When you have time to sit back and watch it, re-watch it. That’s when it hits you.”
Those who haven’t seen a Herzog film before (and shame on you) might venture Into the Abyss expecting a fiery anti-capital punishment polemic or an examination of the American justice system. But though Herzog is anti-death penalty – and says as much here – the film isn’t as really about that, at least in any heavy-handed sense. He’s far more interested in exploring the various characters involved in the story and, by characteristically allowing them to fill any silences, he allows us room to contemplate the people, the events and the wider issues in our own time. “I have no catalogue of questions. Most of them thought I was a TV journalist, I said I’m German and sometimes I make feature films, but I’m not a journalist… I’m a poet – so can you deal with that one?”
Into the Abyss is released today in the UK, whilst companion series Death Row continues to air on Channel 4. The Herzog narrated documentary Dinotasia is coming to UK cinemas on May 4th.