Werner Herzog Offers 24 Pieces of Filmmaking and Life Advice

Image by Erinc Salor via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

There are few film­mak­ers alive today who have the mys­tique of Wern­er Her­zog. His fea­ture films and his doc­u­men­taries are bril­liant and messy, depict­ing both the ecstasies and the ago­nies of life in a chaot­ic and fun­da­men­tal­ly hos­tile uni­verse. And his movies seem very much to reflect his per­son­al­i­ty – uncom­pro­mis­ing, enig­mat­ic and quite pos­si­bly crazy. How else can you explain his will­ing­ness to risk life and limb to shoot in such for­bid­ding places as the Ama­zon­ian rain for­est or Antarc­ti­ca?

In per­haps his great­est film, Fitz­car­ral­do — which is about a dream­er who hatch­es a scheme to drag a river­boat over a moun­tain — Her­zog decides, for the pur­pos­es of real­ism, to actu­al­ly drag a boat over a moun­tain. No spe­cial effects. No stu­dios. In the mid­dle of the Peru­vian jun­gle.

The pro­duc­tion, per­haps the most mis­er­able in the his­to­ry of film, is the sub­ject of the doc­u­men­tary The Bur­den of Dreams. After six pun­ish­ing months, a weary-look­ing Her­zog described his sur­round­ings:

I see it more full of obscen­i­ty. It’s just — Nature here is vile and base. I would­n’t see any­thing erot­i­cal here. I would see for­ni­ca­tion and asphyx­i­a­tion and chok­ing and fight­ing for sur­vival and… grow­ing and… just rot­ting away. Of course, there’s a lot of mis­ery. But it is the same mis­ery that is all around us. The trees here are in mis­ery, and the birds are in mis­ery. I don’t think they — they sing. They just screech in pain. […] But when I say this, I say this all full of admi­ra­tion for the jun­gle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my bet­ter judg­ment.

His world­view brims with a hero­ic pes­simism that is pulled straight out of the Ger­man Roman­tic poets. Nature is not some har­mo­nious anthro­po­mor­phized play­ground. It is instead noth­ing but “chaos, hos­til­i­ty and mur­der.” For those sick of the cyn­i­cal dis­hon­esty of Hollywood’s cur­rent crop of Award-ready fare (hel­lo, The Imi­ta­tion Game), Her­zog comes as a brac­ing ton­ic. An icon of what inde­pen­dent cin­e­ma should be rather than what it has large­ly become.

Below is Herzog’s list of advice for film­mak­ers, found on the back of his lat­est book Wern­er Her­zog – A Guide for the Per­plexed. (Hat tip goes to Jason Kot­tke for bring­ing it to our atten­tion.) Some max­ims are pret­ty spe­cif­ic to the world of moviemak­ing – “That roll of unex­posed cel­lu­loid you have in your hand might be the last in exis­tence, so do some­thing impres­sive with it.” Oth­er points are just plain good lessons for life — “Always take the ini­tia­tive,” “Learn to live with your mis­takes.” Read along and you can almost hear Herzog’s malev­o­lent Teu­ton­ic lilt.

1. Always take the ini­tia­tive.
2. There is noth­ing wrong with spend­ing a night in jail if it means get­ting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Nev­er wal­low in your trou­bles; despair must be kept pri­vate and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mis­takes.
6. Expand your knowl­edge and under­stand­ing of music and lit­er­a­ture, old and mod­ern.
7. That roll of unex­posed cel­lu­loid you have in your hand might be the last in exis­tence, so do some­thing impres­sive with it.
8. There is nev­er an excuse not to fin­ish a film.
9. Car­ry bolt cut­ters every­where.
10. Thwart insti­tu­tion­al cow­ardice.
11. Ask for for­give­ness, not per­mis­sion.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a land­scape.
14. Ignite the fire with­in and explore unknown ter­ri­to­ry.
15. Walk straight ahead, nev­er detour.
16. Manoeu­vre and mis­lead, but always deliv­er.
17. Don’t be fear­ful of rejec­tion.
18. Devel­op your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of hon­or is to fail a film the­o­ry class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cin­e­ma.
22. Guer­ril­la tac­tics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Jan­u­ary 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Wern­er Her­zog Picks His 5 Top Films

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

Wern­er Herzog’s Eye-Open­ing New Film Reveals the Dan­gers of Tex­ting While Dri­ving

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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