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Interview: Werner Herzog on “Encounters at the End of the World”

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06102008_encountersattheendoftheworld1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Fearless filmmaking legend Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn,” “Grizzly Man”) has survived everything from active volcanoes to angry natives, stray bullets during interviews and Klaus Kinski himself, but what about global devastation? Shot entirely in Antarctica on the National Science Foundation’s dime, “Encounters at the End of the World” has an ominous double meaning in our age of climate crisis, but that theme would be too simplistic by half for a resilient cinematic visionary like Herr Herzog. A mirthful and meditative quest for beauty, profundity and magic amongst those rare human beings — many scientists or other esoteric specialists — who choose to live and work in this isolated locale, Herzog’s latest finds new vital questions to ask the world (prostitution and homosexuality among penguins?) through a filter of vibrant personalities, lyrical juxtapositions between man and nature, and the auteur’s distinctive deadpan wit. Though my chat with Herzog was far too brief this time around, even a sliver of his time produces — much like his films — wonderful, peculiar and unexpected findings.

One of my favorite moments in the film is the lone penguin who inexplicably ventures off alone towards the mountain, perhaps to its death. What do you believe was going through its head?

Well, we do not know because we do not read the mind of penguins. Of course, I do have some sort of question to the penguin scientist whether there’s such a thing like derangement or insanity among penguins — and I mean in general, if there’s such a thing in animals. That’s a different question than, let’s say, “March of the Penguins” would pose.

That reminds me of the DVD commentary you recorded for your debut feature, “Signs of Life,” on which you criticize chickens for their stupidity. Do you have something against “fluffy penguins” and other flightless birds?

No, but I’m not into the business of [anthropomorphizing] penguins and I’m not into vanilla ice cream sentimentality about wild nature. That’s okay; I have no problem with the other films out there that have another view. In fact, my film only has one penguin in it, and “March of the Penguins” is something different. They have been documented enough, I think. I didn’t need to make another one. I have no grudge against penguins nor against chickens. [laughs]

A couple times in the film, when a scientist starts to ramble, you lower the volume and summarize what they’re saying. Did you find any of your potential subjects too dull or awkward to be cinematic?

No, not at all. I think every single one that is on camera in “Encounters at the End of the World” is someone whom you would really like to have as a friend. They are wonderful human beings. Of course, there is a lot of humor in it, and a lot of people with whom you would immediately like to spend much more time with than what you see in the film.

Were there any new friends or storylines that didn’t make the final cut?

There were a couple of very, very fine stories left, but the film would have become too long. That’s the worst you can do to an audience: “Is it going to be over soon?” They start shifting around in their seat and looking at their wristwatch. So the film is 99 minutes long, and I think it’s a good time. You should leave the theater with a feeling you would like to see more. Of course, there’s more very, very good footage. Those things that had to be seen are in the film, and as a filmmaker, you have to exercise a certain discipline. I don’t like films that are four-and-a-half hours long, or eight hours long. It just makes me nervous. I think there’s a natural length to a film, and “Encounters at the End of the World” was about 100 minutes — the right and natural length of it, period. I have no regrets that I had to leave out a couple of fine things. So what?

06102008_encountersattheendoftheworld2.jpgYou’ve filmed in some of the world’s most remote locations, and with Antarctica, you’re the first person to shoot on every single continent. So where does a guy like you go when you take a vacation?

Well, I work in these countries and it’s like vacation for me. How can I say… we are on dangerous territory now because, you see, I’m not out for ending up in the Guinness Book of Records for having shot in so many countries. I’m just very curious. In the film, there’s a wonderful moment when a caterpillar driver speaks about how he was interested in the world and ventured out because he had fallen in love with the world. That’s somehow what happened to me, and I’ve been curious and in quite a few countries to make films. But you see, we should not speak about how far out locations can get. My next film is going to take place in New Orleans, and I’m very excited. It’s not comparable with Antarctica or the jungle in Peru, but it’s a very vibrant and fascinating place.

That’s “Bad Lieutenant,” right?

Yes, it’s a completely new version that people think is a remake, but it’s a completely different story. I’ve never seen the “Bad Lieutenant” that was made sometime in the ’90s, I guess.

You told Defamer you hadn’t even heard of Abel Ferrara.

I don’t know who he is, but I heard he has a good, gruff face and maybe he would be good as a gangster in the movie. The last James Bond is not a remake of the previous one. They’re completely different stories, but the leading character is somewhat similar.

But the Bond movies are a series. So basically, the only thing your film has in common is its title?

Well, there is a bad lieutenant in the previous film and in this one. We may even drop the title. I don’t know yet. [It’s] not to avoid it, even if people think it might be a remake. You see, once this kind of rumor is out, you can never stop it. It’s like slashing open a pillow on the roof of your house and the wind blows in it and spills all the feathers out into the landscape. Now go out and find those feathers again and put them back in the bag. It’s impossible. We have to enjoy it as it is. I think we have to allow the rumors to live on. We cannot stop them, so let them live on.

Analogies like that remind me how funny you can be, especially when acting in other people’s films.

It’s not only on camera. When I do a film like “Encounters at the End of the World,” people are laughing so much. It’s very hilarious in many moments. People are always surprised that my films are funny, and I have a lot of humor and self-irony when I’m working as an actor. Of course, I’m always good when it gets into characters that are hostile, dysfunctional, violent and debased.

Given that you didn’t see your first film until 11, what influenced your early comic sensibilities?

I think it’s always the mothers that hand it on to their boys, the sense of humor. Each mother is different; they are always unique. It’s very hard to analyze it. I don’t want to look at myself too hard, but I have a suspicion that it’s handed down from mothers to sons.

06102008_encountersattheendoftheworld3.jpgYou’ve been living in L.A. for quite a while now. Have you picked up any distinctly American habits or behaviors in your daily life?

I married in the United States, and I happen to live in Los Angeles, which I like a lot. It has done good to me because I never trot the same spot. I’m out for new horizons, new projects, new subjects. You see, here in the Antarctic film, I got an invitation from the National Science Foundation; what a wonderful thing that was. I worked with [the production company] Creative Differences and Discovery Channel. And now the film is out through ThinkFilm, which I didn’t even know existed a year ago. So you see, it’s all new alliances, new ways to do films and I really enjoy it.

Do you have any vices?

I do drink coffee, sometimes really fiendish espresso. And I do eat a steak once in a while. But you might find it strange, I’ve never been into any drugs because I don’t like the culture related to drugs. When a joint is passing from person to person, I pass it on. I’m not a moralist, but I don’t use it simply because I don’t like the culture.

Do you ever have time to watch films?

I always have the chance, but I’m not really that much into it. I see maybe eight or ten films per year, sometimes less. I’m not a wild film buff who knows everything, who sees everything. I read, I listen to music, I do some cooking, I work with music — like, doing an opera — I travel on foot, I raise children. So there are other things out there [besides] filmmaking.

Cooking? Do you have a specialty dish?

Yeah, I’m quite good with meat — steaks, venison, seafood. With other things, I’m lousy. I’m not good with soups and I’m not good with sweets. My wife is much better. My program as a cook is limited, but I’m good at a few things. A man should cook a decent meal at least twice a week.

[Photos: “Encounters at the End of the World,” THINKFilm, 2008]

“Encounters at the End of the World” opens in limited release on June 11th.

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