Werner Herzog has traveled to the ends of the earth for his art, rolling cameras in places rarely seen by human eyes — from rapids along the Amazon River for 1972’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” to the rim of an active volcano in Antarctica. But what’s inside Herzog’s head is what fascinates fans of the German director.
As revealed in a new memoir, “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” (the phrase served as the original title of his 1974 film “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser”), Herzog’s far-ranging filmography represents only a fraction of the encounters and adventures that have shaped his worldview.
The book came easily, or so he insists as we huddle in a quiet corner of the Montrose, Colo. airport following the Telluride Film Festival.
“It could have been five times as long, but now it’s only 350 pages. I will not kill you with the weight of stories,” he says of the manuscript, which he wrote in his native German, then entrusted poet Michael Hofmann to translate. The memoir begins with the challenges of his Bavarian childhood and follows the threads of his interest in everything from Honduran child soldiers to a Bronze Age script called Linear B.
The book is loaded with things he never found a way to convey on film, driven by the same impulse that compelled him to write his 2021 novel “The Twilight World,” which was based on the story of Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda. An extreme Herzogian protagonist if ever there was one, Onoda did not realize that World War II had ended and went on serving his country for decades, alone in a jungle of the Philippines.
With the memoir, the idea was to avoid being redundant with work he had already written or shown.
“It’s not a biography. Don’t expect that,” Herzog says. Eight time zones away, it is already his birthday, and Werner (not “Verner,” as some mispronounce it) is in good spirits. “Some friend of mine said, ‘We’ll learn all about your sex life.’ No, you will not. If you want to know about the origins and themes of my films, you have to read ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ which contains every single film.”
Instead, “Every Man for Himself” is an extension of the lifelong quest for understanding — both the natural world and human nature — that have defined his career (a word he rejects, insisting, “I had no plans of career at any time in my life”).
“In all my films, there’s a sense of curiosity and always a sense of profound awe,” he says, “to go to the outer limits of what we are, and looking deep into the very recesses of our soul.”
Citing an example from the book, he explains, “I have a whole chapter on an African revolutionary, John Okello, who staged the revolution in Zanzibar in the early ’60s. He would deliver the craziest speeches you’ve ever heard to his people. I quote some of these speeches, and you will immediately sense that there’s a distant echo of John Okello in the crazy monologues of Aguirre.”
The actor who played Aguirre, Klaus Kinski — “a raving madman,” in Herzog’s words — features heavily in the book. To get the five epic performances he did from the unhinged star, Herzog says, “you have to look deep into Klaus Kinski to understand what’s going on and what makes him unpredictable and crazed and paranoid and destructive.”
Herzog is an insatiable reader who dedicates far more time to literature than he does watching movies. He consumes everything from ancient texts to cutting-edge philosophy, looking for inspiration in French and Chinese poetry as well as the work of countryman Friedrich Hölderlin. But there’s no mistaking his voice for anyone else’s — neither the word choice nor his signature delivery, his accent hardly softened by decades of living in Los Angeles.
“For more than 40 years, I keep preaching to deaf ears that my poetry and my prose will probably outlive my films,” says Herzog, who has always approached screenwriting as a genre of literature. “For example, ‘Cobra Verde’ has some wild opening sentence about heat. The dogs are motionless in the heat, and then, ‘Demented from anger, metallic insects sting glowing stones.’ It’s for you, the reader. I don’t need it. I write the screenplay, and then I put it aside and forget about it. But the financiers need it; the organizers and the actors need it.”
Three volumes of Herzog’s scripts have been translated and published in English. “Sometimes projects came with great vehemence at me, so you can’t duck into the trenches any longer,” he says of his process. “I see a whole film in front of me, so it’s like copying it down.”
But Herzog is most proud of the writing done with no intention of filming. After finishing his memoir, he immediately knocked out another book, called “The Future of Truth.”
“It’s wild storytelling, but it’s also contemplation about the nature of truth in cinema and in history, politics and artificial intelligence.”
Herzog isn’t intimidated by AI. “You can’t be naive, because in warfare, there will be very, very bad things coming at us,” he says. Indeed, he was intrigued enough by a high-concept project involving AI-generated poetry, “I Am Code: An Artificial Intelligence Speaks,” that he agreed to record the audiobook for it. (For lovers of Herzog’s distinct voice, he also narrates the audio versions of “Every Man for Himself” and “The Twilight World.” Do yourself a favor, and let him read those books to you.)
Herzog’s narration has become an increasingly important part of his films, from “Grizzly Man” to the forthcoming “Theatre of Thought,” full of left-field questions about the human brain. What distinguishes his writing is his life experience. “I have not seen any one of my peers who’s had such an intensity of contact with the world out there,” he says, citing “the courage to face it — reality and conflicts and disasters and visions” as the thing that defines him.
“When you look at Joseph Conrad, who had been in the Congo and Indonesia, his experience was unique, and it is palpable in every sentence,” says Herzog. But even language has a shelf life. “Here in the United States, we are burying in a salt mine near Carlsbad millions of barrels of nuclear waste. How do you signal to people in 30,000 years to read the signs? They will not read your language anymore.”
And what of the satellites that humans have sent into space with messages for extraterrestrial life? Might some alien one day read the works of Werner Herzog?
“It won’t happen because the distances are too far,” he says, dead serious, though he does believe other forms of life are out there. “It’s highly probable. We share the same history with the universe; we share the same physics and chemistry. But it may just be algae or bacteria, or in the best case, something like the biological life in the snot of a toddler.”
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