Thursday, 3 July 2008

Werner Herzog's Ecstasy of Truth

Alan Yentob looked a little nervous at the start of this week's Imagine as he approached the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles to interview Werner Herzog. I'm not sure if his unease was due to Herzog's reputation for extreme behaviour, that the director was shot at the last time the BBC interviewed him or whether none of the folks milling outside the museum looked like they shared Alan's taste for Armani suits. Nevertheless, despite an early hiccup where Herzog corrected Yentob for referring to him as German rather than Bavarian, the pair seemed to get on.

Herzog is one of my all-time heroes and watching the programme reminded me of the most thrilling moment of my BBC career so far - interviewing the great man for the Storyville website five years ago. Unlike Alan I wasn't lucky enough to get a face-to-face meeting, instead we had a lengthy conversation over the phone, me in London, Herzog in a Milan hotel (he was directing an opera at La Scala). We started with a straight-up interview about his current film Wheel of Time, a typically image-rich documentary about the Buddhist Kalachakra initiation. This was followed by me putting questions to Herzog that had been emailed in from our audience on as diverse topics as the rats in Noserfatu (none hurt; Herzog later sold them to a lab for a profit) and his memorable advice to young filmmakers ("work as a bouncer in a sex club").

Anyone who's watched a Werner Herzog documentary or listened to a DVD commentary will be familiar with his distinctive Anglo-Bavarian voice and hearing it on the end of a phone for nearly an hour was an absolute joy.

One of the most interesting things Herzog talked about was his notion of the "ecstasy of truth" - in his own words:

I've always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies, you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema-vérité does - they are the accountants of truth. I'm after something deeper. I call it the "ecstatic truth" - the "ecstasy of truth".

In brief, that to make a truthful non-fiction film you have to make stuff up. This was mentioned in Imagine in reference to Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Herzog's brilliant documentary about Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler. I was particularly struck by something Herzog's editor Joe Bini said - that Rescue Dawn, Herzog's recent dramatisation of Little Dieter, is actually a more 'realistic' film than it's 'non-fiction' predecessor. This Slate article talks in more depth about 'truth' and the two films.

The documentary police no doubt hate Werner's approach (and after Queengate I was worried that the BBC may never be allowed to fund another of his films). One of my favourite scenes in Grizzy Man, Herzog's documentary about unfortunate bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, features the coroner who performed Treadwell's autopsy. The doctor is so deadpan that I immediately assumed it was another scripted concoction. Did it ruin my enjoyment of the film? Did I think Herzog was lying to me? Not one bit. Werner Herzog is not interested in actuality. He is interested in unpicking a deeper, more universal, innate truth about people and events. His quest for the "ecstasy of truth" is what makes even his lesser films a rewarding experience.

If you missed Imagine on Tuesday it's still available on iPlayer and BBC Four is repeating it on Saturday 12 July along with Herzog's Klaus Kinski classics Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. On Friday 4 July you can also see Wheel of Time.

For the record, my favourite Herzog film is Stroszek. What's yours?

Related Links

Herzog on Wheel of Time - my interview with Werner

Werner Herzog Q&A - asking the questions, Nigel Smith

Imagine: Werner Herzog - broadcast info and watch again when available

Werner Herzog - official site worth delving into

Museum of Jurassic Technology - Joanne says it's brilliant


Peter said...

phew. i'm going to have to pick three (is this allowed?)

Heart of Glass
La Soufriere
Lessons of Darkness

oh...that's four....might as well go for the half dozen then...
Fata Morgana
Every Man For Himself and God Against All

have you read 'of walking in ice?'

Peter said...


have you noticed how a lot of Popol Vuh tunes seem to rip off Neil Young's 'Ohio'?

Nigel Smith said...

La Soufriere is superb. In fact most of those early shorts are brilliant. I love How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, about cattle auctioneers.

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