Live in Hollywood, one night only: Werner Herzog, raconteur

In March 2010, the American Cinematheque in Hollywood screened a double feature of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987), with Herzog himself in attendance for a Q&A between the movies. It might have been the most satisfying Q&A session with a filmmaker I’ve ever seen, and it was definitely the most entertaining.

Werner Herzog in 2007. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After the screening of Nosferatu, Herzog came out to take questions from the packed house. Not surprisingly, he was a fount of anecdotes, especially about how he managed to film 10,000 rats — no CGI here, kids — infesting the Dutch town where Nosferatu was shot. Not even an angry local behind the wheel of a bulldozer was enough to keep Herzog from realizing his vision: “I intimidated him until he was persuaded to change his mind” is the director’s succinct account of how that particular donnybrook was resolved.

Herzog’s richest subject was his relationship with Klaus Kinski, the most colorful, contentious director-actor collaboration that film history has ever witnessed. (See sidebar at left.) “Collaboration” is too mild a term to describe their five-movie partnership, actually — ongoing power struggle or fight to the death might be closer to the mark. Far from being weary of the subject all these years later, Herzog discussed Kinski and his many outrages with relish; it’s as if an epic feud continues to this day, even though one of the parties is in his grave. Kinski, we are told, couldn’t remember his lines for more than 10 minutes; during one stage production he hurled a burning chandelier at the audience out of frustration. Another time he rolled himself up in the carpet on stage and lay in it for 30 minutes until the house manager had no choice but to bring the curtain down.

The Herzog-Kinski dynamic, neatly summed up in one image.

Herzog related how, during the making of Cobra Verde, Kinski kept bugging Herzog to direct a screenplay that he, Kinski, had written, called Kinski Paganini. The screenplay was 600 pages long; every page consisted of half a page of Paganini “fiddling,” then half a page of him having sex with another woman. Herzog kept putting him off, until Kinski resolved to direct it himself — because, he asserted, not only would he be a greater director than Herzog, he would be a greater director than anyone else in history. (It’s good that these two had the movie industry as an outlet for their megalomania.)

During his talk Herzog also showed great affection for Kinski, even as he was describing how insufferable Kinski could be. And Kinski, we learned, could even express muted affection for Herzog, though never in public. An audience member asked about the “ordeal” of working with Kinski, and Herzog started declaiming, “Who cares? Who cares how difficult something is?” He gestured to the screen and continued: “You saw how magnificent he was [in Nosferatu] — who cares?”

Who cares how difficult something was to achieve — that’s the motto of Herzog’s life and work right there. (“Career” seems too puny and limited a way to describe the fanatical determination he’s shown, again and again.) It’s what made him such an inspiring figure to listen to at the Egyptian Theatre. As he described his working methods, he was amusingly dismissive of “timid” crews who panic if he doesn’t get enough coverage of a scene. To him coverage is “cowardly,” the idea that you would waste time shooting a scene from 12 different angles simply out of fright, just in case you didn’t get what you needed for the editing room, rather than following through on your original vision. And make no mistake, he said, films need an overarching vision, and a leader to inspire the cast and crew.

For more on Herzog, click here.

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