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?
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.