The Other Side of Madness - Werner Herzog
This first in a new weekly feature explores some of the maddest men (and women) to ever work within the film industry the directors who push their actors to the absolute limit, the actors who know no bounds when it comes to putting their bodies on the line for a great performance and the various members of cast and crew famed for their mad methods both on and off set. Each week, The Other Side of Madness takes a look at a particularly mad case starting today with: THE DAY WERNER HERZOG ATE HIS OWN SHOE For those of you who dont know about eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog Ive got a feeling that you are going to get to know him quite well during the course of this weekly feature. He is perhaps most famous for his collaborations with equally mad actor Klaus Kinski, a legendary partnership which resulted in Herzog making a documentary on his frequent leading man entitled My Best Fiend in 1999. Herzogs films are always bizarre and quite often brilliant featuring classics such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarrraldo, Stroszek and the stunning documentary Grizzly Man released in 2005. His work usually focuses son the struggle between man and nature and features enigmatic lead characters that are intent on chasing seemingly impossible dreams. The films often require repeat viewings in order to soak in all the subliminal themes that run throughout. As strange as his films are however the director himself is arguably even stranger... After all who else would threaten to shoot one of his actors on set, get shot at himself by a rifle during an interview for The Culture Show, throw himself into a cactus plant as a reward for the hard efforts of his cast and crew and become partly responsible for the death of a Native extra during an unbelievably dangerous film take. Needless to say anyone brave enough to have ever worked with the man have probably never forgotten the experience since. It should be clear then that Herzog eating his own shoe was in no way a Im a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here type publicity stunt nor a way to promote one of his films. It is quite simply the mark of the man and his genuine madness. But how did it all come to fruition? Well the motivation came from Herzogs observations on promising documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, a friend of his who would continuously give up on his over-ambitious projects. To give you a sense of how well matched the two men were within their friendship; Werner Herzog had agreed to help Morris on his first project which involved digging up the grave of Ed Geins mother to find out if the notorious serial killer had already stolen the corpse himself. Yep, didnt appear on my shortlist of film ideas either. When the time came to the deed Werner of course showed up (what youre surprised?) but Morris didnt show, perhaps a sign of cold feet or maybe he had in fact realised what a stupid idea it was in the first place. Morris would not give up on his dream of making impossible to make documentaries however but unfortunately for him his next two projects both went nowhere. Finally whilst reading through an article in the San Chronicle entitled 450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY Morris found the inspiration to make a film about men who run a pet cemetery. At times both touching, funny and bizarre the documentary is a tender examination of the friendship between pet owners and their pets. In a bid to encourage Morris during the filming of the project Werner promised that if the film was completed he would eat his own shoe which turned out to be the shoes that he was wearing at the time. Upon hearing this, Morris of course laughed it off and told his friend to stop being so eccentric. Oh no he didnt, sorry I was thinking about a normal persons reaction. Instead the deal went ahead and sure enough at the premiere of the Pet Cemetery documentary which went on to be named Gates of Heaven, Herzog lived up to his borderline psychopathic reputation by quite literally cooking and then chewing away at his own shoe. He did however leave the sole untouched whilst delivering a deadpan analogy about how you dont eat the bones of a chicken.
Whether Herzog saw the funny side in any of this remains to be seen but it is quite a spectacle watching the man ramble on with the utmost seriousness about how civilisation doesnt have adequate images all the while performing such an absurdly comical act that wouldnt seem out of place in a Harpo Marx sketch. For a person who claimed after being shot that it wasnt a significant bullet it is often hard to tell whether Herzog is making an attempt at his own obscure form of humour or if he is deadly serious about the things he says and does. Either way you look at it he comes off as being completely mad. Ironically enough the promise that Herzog made to Morris if he finished his documentary ended up turning into a documentary which was given the typically blunt German title Werner Herzog eats his own shoe. Excerpts from the footage can be seen here: As for Errol Morris, well he has gone on to become one of the most respected documentary filmmakers of all time and someone who esteemed film critic Roger Ebert has personally described as a magician and as great a filmmaker as Hitchock or Fellini. And now as part of tradition every time Morris finishes a film he invites Herzog around for a wonderful premiere - some wine, crackers and the main course a reduced pair of Nike Trainers. Okay so thats a complete lie, but its still a wonderful image to visualise.
Thanks for reading and please come back for next weeks article entitled TAKE 77: THE STANLEY KUBRICK METHOD" which explores the great directors legendary time and effort spent on particular takes during various film shoots. P.S. Eating a shoe is unlikely to make your film ambitions come true.