Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School: Apply & Learn the Art of Guerilla Filmmaking & Lock-Picking


Image by Erinç Salor

No Eli Roth gorefest or low-bud­get video nasty, no Hubert Sel­by or Thomas Hardy adap­ta­tion, no Michael Hanecke gut­punch nor the bleak­est noir can com­pare with the work of Wern­er Her­zog when it comes to exis­ten­tial dread. His doc­u­men­taries and absur­dist tragi­come­dies reach into the heart of human dark­ness and doomed obses­sive weird­ness. Even his turns as an actor and pro­duc­er take him into shad­owy, amoral places where grim, sure death awaits. Do you, dear read­er, dare fol­low him there?

If so, you must first brave the appli­ca­tion for Herzog’s Rogue Film School. Lessons include “the art of lock-pick­ing, trav­el­ing on foot, the exhil­a­ra­tion of being shot at unsuc­cess­ful­ly, the ath­let­ic side of film­mak­ing, the cre­ation of one’s own shoot­ing per­mits, the neu­tral­iza­tion of bureau­cra­cy, and gueril­la film­mak­ing.” Have tech­ni­cal ques­tions? “For this pur­pose,” Her­zog writes in his 12-point descrip­tion of Rogue, “please enroll at your local film school.” This is no beginner’s work­shop; it is “about a way of life. It is about a cli­mate, the excite­ment that makes film pos­si­ble.” This being Her­zog, “excite­ment” like­ly involves death-defy­ing dan­ger. Pre­pare for the worst.

But you who are apply­ing for the Rogue Film School know this already. You are up for the chal­lenge. You also know that Her­zog doesn’t put him­self bod­i­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly close to—and over—the edge of civ­i­liza­tion just for the sake of a thrill. This is art—raw, con­fronta­tion­al, and utter­ly uncom­pro­mis­ing. And so, Rogue Film School will also “be about poet­ry, films, music, images, lit­er­a­ture.” There is a required, eclec­tic read­ing list: J.A. Baker’s doc­u­ment of hawk life, The Pere­grine, Hemingway’s The Short Hap­py Life of Fran­cis Macomber & Oth­er Sto­ries, Virgil’s Geor­gics. Sug­gest­ed read­ings include The Poet­ic Edda, The Con­quest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castil­lo, and—somewhat unexpectedly—The War­ren Report.

And of course, there is film, “which could include your sub­mit­ted films,” but will also include a required view­ing list: John Huston’s The Trea­sure of the Sier­ra Madre, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zap­a­ta, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Bat­tle of Algiers, Satya­jit Ray’s The Apu Tril­o­gy, and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? (if avail­able, he writes—watch it here)—an Iran­ian com­ing-of-age movie on BFI’s “Top fifty films for chil­dren up the age of 14” list. You will dis­cov­er ways to “cre­ate illu­mi­na­tion and an ecsta­sy of truth.” But do not for a moment think this will involve some mid­dle­brow New Age brand of self-dis­cov­ery. “Cen­sor­ship will be enforced,” Her­zog warns, “There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga class­es, nutri­tion­al val­ues, herbal teas, dis­cov­er­ing your Bound­aries, and Inner Growth.” You will prob­a­bly eat meat raw from a preda­to­ry beast you’ve killed with your bare hands.

Alter­nate­ly, you may have canapés and drinks at a seclud­ed bar in the UK while Her­zog chats you up about your lat­est project and his. So began the ori­en­ta­tion to Rogue Film School for film­mak­er and sound design­er Marce­lo de Oliveira, who chron­i­cled his expe­ri­ence as a Her­zog appren­tice in a two-part write up on the Scot­tish Doc­u­men­tary Institute’s Blog. On day one, Her­zog advised his pupils to “be pre­pared to step across the bor­ders.” De Oliveira quotes the mas­ter say­ing “Film school will not teach you that we have a nat­ur­al right as film­mak­ers to steal a cam­era or steal cer­tain doc­u­ments.” And though Her­zog does not explic­it­ly advo­cate such activ­i­ties, he strong­ly implies they may be jus­ti­fied, refer­ring to his own act of steal­ing a cam­era from the Munich Film School—the same cam­era with which he shot the crazed and vision­ary Fitz­car­ral­do. The theft, Her­zog has said, was no crime, but “a neces­si­ty.”

Her­zog is not a guru, trans­mit­ting instruc­tions for enlight­en­ment to cross-legged dis­ci­ples. He is a cat­a­lyst, encour­ag­ing his stu­dents to “go absolute­ly and com­plete­ly wild” for the sake of their indi­vid­ual vision. His film school sounds like the kind of oppor­tu­ni­ty no dar­ing film­mak­er should pass up, but should you apply and get reject­ed, you can still learn a thing or two from the great Ger­man direc­tor. Just watch the video above, “Wern­er Herzog’s Mas­ter­class.” Her­zog shared his wis­dom and expe­ri­ence with a rapt audi­ence at last year’s Locarno Film Fes­ti­val. Among the many pieces of advice were the fol­low­ing, com­piled by Indiewire. See their post for more essen­tial high­lights from this fas­ci­nat­ing ses­sion.

  • It’s a very dan­ger­ous thing to have a video vil­lage, a video out­put. Avoid it. Shut it down. Throw it into the next riv­er. You have an actor, and peo­ple that close all star­ing at the mon­i­tor gives a false feel­ing; that ‘feel good’ feel­ing of secu­ri­ty. It’s always mis­lead­ing. You have to avoid it.
  • I always do the slate board; I want to be the last one from the actors on one side and the tech­ni­cal appa­ra­tus on the oth­er side. I’m the last one and then things roll. You don’t have to be a dic­ta­tor.
  • Nev­er show any­one in a doc­u­men­tary, rush­es. They’ll become self-con­scious. Nev­er ever do that.
  • Some­times it’s good to leave your char­ac­ter alone so no one can pre­dict what is going to hap­pen next. Some­times these moments are very telling and mov­ing.
  • Dis­miss the cul­ture of com­plaint you hear every­where.
  • You should always try to find a way deep into some­one.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wern­er Her­zog Picks His 5 Favorite Films

Por­trait Wern­er Her­zog: The Director’s Auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal Short Film from 1986

Wern­er Her­zog Gets Shot Dur­ing Inter­view, Doesn’t Miss a Beat

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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