Werner Herzog Lists All the Languages He Knows–and Why He Only Speaks French If (Literally) a Gun’s Pointed at His Head

If you’ve explored the fil­mog­ra­phy of Wern­er Her­zog, you’ve heard him speak not just his sig­na­ture Teu­ton­i­cal­ly inflect­ed Eng­lish — often imi­tat­ed in recent years, though nev­er quite equaled — but Ger­man as well. What else does he speak? In the clip above, the Bavar­i­an-born direc­tor of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitz­car­ral­do responds thus to the ques­tion of exact­ly how many lan­guages he has: “Not too many. I mean, Span­ish, Eng­lish, Ger­man… and then I spoke mod­ern Greek bet­ter than Eng­lish once. I made a film in mod­ern Greek, but that’s because in school I learned Latin and ancient Greek.”

The list does­n’t end there. “I do speak some Ital­ian. I do under­stand French, but I refuse to speak it. It’s the last thing I would ever do. You can only get some French out of me with a gun point­ed at my head” — which is exact­ly what hap­pened to him. “I was tak­en pris­on­er in Africa” by “drunk sol­diers on a truck,” all of them “fif­teen, six­teen years old, some of them eight, nine years old,” armed and tak­ing dead aim at him. “That was very unpleas­ant,” not least due to the lead sol­dier’s insis­tence that “on nous par­le français ici.” And so Her­zog final­ly “had to say a few things in French. I regret it. I should­n’t have done it.”

But speak­ing, in Her­zog’s world, isn’t as impor­tant as read­ing. “I read in Span­ish and I read in Latin and I read in ancient Greek and I read in, er, what­ev­er,” he told the Guardian in a more recent inter­view. “But it doesn’t mat­ter. It depends on the text. I mean, take, for instance, Hölder­lin, the great­est of the Ger­man poets. You can­not touch him in trans­la­tion. If you’re read­ing Hölder­lin, you must learn Ger­man first.” This along­side an appre­ci­a­tion of “trash movies, trash TV. Wrestle­Ma­nia. The Kar­dashi­ans. I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by it. So I don’t say read Tol­stoy and noth­ing else. Read every­thing. See every­thing. The poet must not avert his eyes.”

It you want to become like Wern­er Her­zog — well, best of luck to you (though he has cre­at­ed a “rogue film school” and cur­rent­ly stars in a Mas­ter­class). But if you want to fol­low his lead in this specif­i­cal­ly lin­guis­tic respect, you can start from our col­lec­tion of free online lessons in 48 lan­guages. There you’ll find mate­r­i­al to start on every­thing from Span­ish to mod­ern as well as ancient Greek. Also includ­ed is French, Her­zog’s bête noire, as well as Latin, which in the Guardian inter­view he calls his third lan­guage. Ger­man, which also fig­ures into our col­lec­tion, turns out not to be Her­zog’s native lan­guage: “My moth­er tongue is Bavar­i­an. Which is not even Ger­man, it’s a dialect.” With his film­mak­ing activ­i­ties cur­tailed by world events, per­haps he’d con­sid­er pro­duc­ing a series of lessons?

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

To Make Great Films, You Must Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write, Say Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wern­er Her­zog

Wern­er Her­zog Offers 24 Pieces of Film­mak­ing and Life Advice

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

A Map Show­ing How Much Time It Takes to Learn For­eign Lan­guages: From Eas­i­est to Hard­est

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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