A Discombobulate Map of Ecstatic Truths

by Charlie Latan


Werner Herzog during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. Still From “Burden of Dreams,” (1982). 95 mins. 16mm film. Courtesy The Criterion Collection.


A Discombobulate Map of Ecstatic Truths

Werner Herzog and His Conquests of the Sublime

“The collapse of the stellar universe will occur—like creation—in grandiose splendor.” —Blaise Pascal, from the opening of Lessons of Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1995).

Like that, cinema wunderkind Werner Herzog has already situated us in the terrain of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” i.e. a place of dark contradiction, but also the place where truth illuminates.

The German documentarian/auteur is a professional gallivanter, as naive as he is brilliant, as humble as he is flagrantly egotistical. Physically and spiritually, his on-location filming literally spans the globe, and zeroes in on myriad shapes man’s lunacy may take—lunacy for life that, of course, verges upon death. If you’ve read any 20th century continental philosophers, consider the Truth-Event—

No, that’s the theoretical vying for the definition of Truth. If continental philosophy was a spot-free career in academia, Herzog’s career has been soiled by assembly-line work, spat upon while working the door of underground sex clubs, blistered by month-long walks across Western Europe.

Herzog is a self-proclaimed man of praxis: learning his craft, truth-making on celluloid, through experience. He’s sought moments of sublimity in the fringes of reality—a man-child ultimately killed by his love of Alaskan grizzly bears (Grizzly Man, 2005), blazing Kuwaiti oilfields described from the perspective of an alien (Lessons of Darkness), three Caribbean men who won’t evacuate a sulfur-steaming volcanic island about to erupt (La Soufrière, 1977)... This third example precipitated by a simple query. He wanted to know how these men understood death.

Perhaps Death and Truth are dialectical, or maybe Herzog just makes it appear as such. There’s his interview with a death row inmate (On Death Row I + II, 2012/2013), also his poetic portrayal of a high-flying ski jumper (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, 1974) who, as it seems, sought refuge in the air because of a traumatic experience watching a raven pecked apart by its own brethren. For such a spirited character on and off screen, death commonly factors into Herzog’s work. But for a director so entrenched in that which defies life, his lifework has earned near-sacred affirmations.

After directing almost 30 documentaries, 20 feature-length narratives and a handful of shorts, Roger Ebert has said, “[Herzog] has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.” Herzog claims that Ebert is one of a few good soldiers of cinema.

Herzog’s extraordinary gift, similar to that of the poet, is making the grandiose plausible. The impossible possible. But where poetry stops at the page, Herzog’s audio-visual poetics go further. He arranges finances. He compels as few men as possible to help him chase down the very dream he’s having. Pay as few people as possible, he’s said, when asked about budgeting. He’ll narrate the film himself if he has to.

Making the grandiose plausible is a long-running theme in Herzog’s work. Such fabrication requires no shortage of imagination. Fitzcarraldo (1982), one of many examples, explores these very mechanisms of delusion. Here, a fictional visionary must carry a steamboat over a Peruvian mountain in order to save opera. Yes, opera, like the whole idea of it.

But where does the imaginary overlap the real? During the filming of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog persuaded 200 locals to help him actually carry a 320-ton steamboat over a mountain. One crewmember was bitten by a poisonous snake and supposedly had to amputate his own appendage with a chainsaw; it’s implied that Herzog assisted. Rumors persist that he discussed paying the locals to off his lead actor, the sinewy-skeletoid Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s madness is indubitable, and his craftwork, indubitably compelling.

But, if you allow Herzog to discuss his version of Fitzcarraldo’s making, he’ll inform you that it’s one of his many fabulous encounters with erfahrbar [lit. “experience-able”] truth. Boston University published a paper, transcribed and translated from his talk in Milan after a screening of Lessons in Darkness, where he clearly articulates the thesis of the film. “[It’s] about an opera being staged in the rainforest; as you’ll know, I set about actually producing opera. As I did, one maxim was crucial for me: an entire world must undergo a transformation into music, must become music; only then would we have produced opera.” Perhaps the beauty of the charlatan is their selective memory. His faux-“opera” almost cost actual lives.

To harness the sublime, to find experience-able truths, people, places, and events are shattered and reassembled. Take Herzog’s account of the filming of Fitzcarraldo. He claims to be a hero who helped local Peruvians reclaim their own land. He defended ancient land against greedy oil interests. Companies were eyeing recently discovered oil reserves and the natives had nothing in writing to prove their ostensible ownership.

So how did Herzog prevail? He bribed low-level local government officials. He engaged provincial judges in fierce lunchtime arguments about Supreme Court cases involving land disputes, and obviously the nature of Truth (dialogue he, of course, regales verbatim during his Milan talk). Ultimately, he persuaded the Peruvian government that hearsay, at least hearsay that’s lasted generations, is grounds for establishing latent ownership. Werner Herzog now doesn’t merely sustain a truth we experience vis-à-vis cinema. Now Herzog claims to have literally shaped the reality of Truth.

But what of his Fitzcarraldo account is really real? Perhaps that’s besides the point. If we asked Herzog where ecstatic truth lies, if we asked him to plot it on a map, we’d invariably follow the scrawling lines of a lunatic crisscrossing national boundaries and bodies of water, venturing deep into precarious caverns and scaling death-defying peaks. Let’s not even slip into the lake of rumors surrounding Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog’s tumultuous relationship. According to numerous sources, the damning insults published in Kinski’s name were, in fact, penned by Herzog himself. Perhaps Truth isn’t found so much as Untruth is escaped.

Perhaps Herzog’s life is such motion. He believes that if a project has depth, a veritable soul, the money will come to it the way curs on the street will gather around a generous hand. Herzog, publicly, portrays a fearless artist in his pursuit of higher states of being. But such diagnosis doesn’t come without side effects.

In 2004, Salon’s pop critic Cintra Wilson described the visionary charlatan as a passive-aggressive sociopath who manipulates landscapes, and locals. Of course, a director in search of “ecstatic truths” has left us a long itinerary of grandiose gestures—there’s incredibly debatable footage of the director being shot in the abdomen by a BB-gun-wielding sniper in the Hollywood Hills. He’s claimed his film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) is not a remake of Abel Ferrara’s film of the same title. He ate his own shoe after losing a bet that Errol Morris wouldn’t finish his documentary Gates of Heaven (1978), about, of all things, pet cemeteries.

Yes, on film, immortalized, Herzog eats his own shoe, a humiliating feat contemporary media still flings at him. It’s quintessentially Trickster of Herzog, how we as distant audience members will never know what he actually ate. We do know that Werner Herzog wrote the screenplay for Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), though. At this point, given that he’s the Creator of the self-contained shoe-eating universe, it’s besides the point if he consumed it. Much like it’s besides the point if Vincent Gallo truly offered Chloe Sevigny his own appendage, or a prosthetic, in Brown Bunny (2003). Herzog’s short documentary will forever take us to a humorous place where master chef Alice Waters stews footwear in garlic and cloves for five hours. Here, a director honors his word. Here, a man claims that he still fulfilled his part of a deal despite not eating the sole. It’s like the bone of a chicken, Herzog says, it’s not fit for consumption.

The point is that Truth, experience-able Truth at least, is something we feel. And failures aside, Herzog’s ethics, his hands-dirty approach, has bequeathed us grand images, memorable and evocative stylizations. He’s ventured to exotic, and dangerous, locations—jeopardy be damned—to capture fleeting visions. And he’s survived the ordeal.

With one camera and 16 people he marionetted the phantasmagoric landscapes of Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), anthropomorphizing the foggy crags in the Netherlands Delft-region into a grim augurer, a sprawling character in and of itself who oppresses Jonathan Harker (portrayed by Bruno Ganz), portending his chilling, everlasting doom.

Herzog’s preserved a moment of craven insanity hovering on the absolute threshold of man’s psyche—see Kinski’s ecstatic countenance during Woyzeck’s climactic slaying; keep in mind that Kinski refused to portray Büchner’s protagonist on stage for fear he would “lose his mind.”

And yet Herzog, even as we paint him a man of Truth, is the consummate contradiction. Someone who will claim in one lecture that a chair is just a chair and that he does not understand irony. Other times he’ll lecture on the Sublime while simultaneously refusing to answer the original question of the Absolute. In another talk, he’ll claim he didn’t realize, for 25 years, that his good friend, director John Waters, was gay. Herzog’s a cosmic comedian, punchlines often decades in the making.

It’s refreshing to see someone so resolutely devoted to Truth, an event he’d lead us to believe forever hinges on madness and violence and death, be so absurdly committed to acting roles like lead villain in Jack Reacher, a 2012 blockbuster starring Tom Cruise. “Paramount Pictures is a giant multinational corporation, and they do not make these casting decisions lightly,” he shot back at a dismissive Scott Macaulay, of Filmmaker Magazine. “You don’t think they have gone over my resume very carefully and examined every part I’ve done?”

Funny too. Herzog’s quick to dismiss Jean-Luc Godard, the godfather of the self-referential. “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.” Yet Herzog at times cites himself while exemplifying the dissociative brilliance of cinema. His reasoning: he claims people who viewed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans were captivated by the psychedelic iguanas that would appear before the Vicodin and cocaine-addled Terence McDonagh, portrayed by another actor willing to gamble his sanity for art’s sake, Nicolas Cage. “It’s strange, but everyone who has seen [Bad Lieutenant] mentions that scene. There are elements you can’t normally marry together in one image, yet it’s a special spirit that occurs in filmmaking and no other form of media.” Technically, Herzog came out and admitted that B.L. was a “reimagining” of the original. Face palm—a man presenting Truth via the dissociative himself bears the trait.

If we just listen to Herzog’s circular reasoning it’s like staring into Poe’s swirling maelstrom. We’re bedazzled, hypnotized by his affectation, the choices he makes in what to share with us, the style in which he delivers it. The man’s a walking myth-making fabrication. And warning: We’re reaching dangerous limits, treading close to the throes of ecstasy here in this very essay—perhaps the man is remnant, and his work has permeated our being. Werner Herzog reportedly hypnotized his own cast during filming of Heart of Glass (1976), a story set in 18th century Bavaria and shot mostly on location. Of course, this is a story based loosely on an actual prophet and a powerful ruby made in a factory that burns as our lead character descends into madness. Apropos?

And in moments of ecstasy, does our human mind not take great pleasure in the apropos? It is now that a simple fact may excite us. That a double-talking showman of self-proclaimed praxis—gleaned from that Boston University paper—would spelunk deep into Southern France’s Chauvet Cave to film mankind’s oldest human-painted images. Such is the basis of 2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, by physical measurement, the deepest of Herzog’s locations. Do we not see Death once more, this time echoed through observation of a vanished culture? If not demented, at least Herzog is a moral artist. Really, what’s more “praxis-matic” than art which literally precedes theory?

Careful. Charting a course into the lightness of being, the crossroads of spirituality and intellectuality, does not make Werner Herzog “factual.” The quote by Pascal that we began with, the wily director made it up himself. And as quickly as he uttered it in Milan, he admits to the sham, claiming “Pascal himself could not have said it better.”

So how does sober Truth intermingle with joyous duplicity? Said Herzog in Milan, “With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.”

Werner Herzog’s cinematic conquests require overt fabrication, lies if you will. His unrestrained imagination, followed, poses immanent risk. Perhaps personal stylization is his safest attribute; he’s known to edit his own films. To Herzog, the “good soldier of cinema” pursues a location that does not exist any more than perceived. He must forever scout these locus of maddening contradictions, working to elevate the elusive while defying the destructive. The film, as imagined, fabricated and stylized by a Truth seeker like Herzog, may then reveal sublimity.

Written by Charlie Latan