Interview Werner Herzog

Based on the novel by legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson, “The Killer Inside Me” tells the story of handsome, charming, unassuming small-town deputy sheriff Lou Ford, who has a bunch of problems. Women problems. Law-enforcement problems. And an ever-growing pile of murder victims in his west Texas jurisdiction. All the while Lou manages to remain his stoic self. However, as evidence is discovered over the course of the investigation, suspicion begins to fall on Lou. But in this savage and bleak universe, nothing is ever what it seems.

In many circles, Werner Herzog is a man who needs no introduction -the acclaimed Bavarian so recognised for the part he played in New German Cinema way back when. Since then, of course, he has moved on but in many ways his films remain the same- as memorable and distinctive as ever.

Ten years ago, he made the documentary  ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’, examining the life of Dieter Dengler. In it Dieter Dengler talks about being shot down over Laos, being captured, and, down to 85 pounds, escaping. Barefoot, surviving monsoons, leeches, and machete-wielding villagers, he was rescued.

Ten years later, Herzog brings this story to the action-adventure realm in the acclaimed film  ‘Rescue Dawn’. With the DVD out now, we  caught up with the director to discuss the film.

Q: You’re a busy man these days, averaging a movie a year. With Rescue Dawn, were you at all reluctant to revisit your 1997 documentary Little Deiter Needs To Fly to make it into a feature film with a big-name cast?
A:: No, no, not at all. Rescue Dawn was always the first film, and if you see Little Deiter Needs To Fly, both films have their own ground, both films compliment the other very well. I think it’s a wonderful thing that’s there are two films, and each one has its own separate, very strong life. In fact, the feature film was always first – we just didn’t get to make it back then.

Q:It took ten years to turn Deiter’s story into a feature film – was the struggle mainly financial?
A:No, it didn’t take that long. The film came out in 2006, and it was two years after it had been made. It didn’t take long. I did quite a few other films in-between.


Q:It’s regarded as your first American feature, which is surprising, given that you’ve been a noted filmmaker now for four decades. Were you not welcome in Hollywood until now?
A:It doesn’t matter where the finances come from. It’s not a Hollywood movie. When the film was finished, and it was shown for the first time, it was immediately acquired by MGM. It really doesn’t matter where the financing comes from. This is very much the kind of film I make.


Q:The decision to make Deiter an American in Rescue Dawn, and to cut his German father out of the picture, some saw that as a nod to the American market…
A:It’s so often that these films where they speak with these heavy accents, I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t want to happen here. When your main character speaks with a very distinctive accent, it puts him out of sync with those around him, and I just didn’t want that to be the case in this film.


Q:Some people thought Dieter becoming American was a political message…
A:He was a quintessential immigrant. He didn’t come just to improve his material life. He was one of those who came to America with a dream, and his dream was to fly. And this is why he was so loyal to America, because this country made his dream come true. Deiter’s is actually exactly what I like about Americans, this kind of self-reliance, optimism, courage, you just name it. All the qualities I like in Americans.


Q:Deiter Dengler passed away in 2001 – what do you think he would have made of Rescue Dawn? He obviously knew it was going to happen someday…
A:Oh, he knew it. He always liked the basics of the screenplay that we were working on, and I think he would have liked the movie. But we can only speculate…


Q:From Casper Hausen to Timothy Treadwell, you always seem drawn to tragic dreamers, innocents who fall victim to their own fantasies, their own ideals. Is there a pattern to your movie for you, or is that something you try not to think about?
A:I really don’t think that much about it. I feel that the kind of films that I make seem to have certain basic characteristics [laughs]. You can recognise a film that I’ve made…


Q:The notion that there’s a stubborness in you that’s been there from the start – refusing to sing in front of the class as a young boy, and, having been punished, refusing to listen to music again until you were eighteen. I guess you need that kind of stubborness to be a filmmaker, but did you recognise that strong self-belief early on?
A:Well, I would call it differently, although you have to be cautious with terms like that. I can say that I follow the very clear visions that I have. I never planned a career though, or what my next movie would be, or should I take note of what’s doing well at the cinemas. What’s going on around me really doesn’t intrude. Since Rescue Dawn, I’ve made another film in the Antartic recently, and as I sit here, there are five, six other projects pushing and pulling for my attention.


Q:Is it an easy life now, given that you’re very well established? I would hope getting a Werner Herzog movie financied today is easier than ever before…
A:Now, it is more difficult, because the basis of operation has shrunk. Worldwide, everything is dominated by the Hollywood mainstream. And Hollywood mainstream somehow invaded the collective dreams worldwide. When you go to Argentina, you see Hollywood movies. When you go to Moscow, or wherever, you see the Hollywood blockbuster movies. And movies outside of that, the basis for these movies have shrunk. But it’s okay, I have my audiences who like my films, so, I shouldn’t ask how difficult it is.


Q:Grizzly Man got such a strong reception – especially compared to its immediate predecessor, White Diamond. That must have helped your cause…
A:That success doesn’t really matter. White Diamond will outlive Grizzly Man. It’s a much stronger film. You see something like Aguirre, The Wrath Of God – which I made at the beginning of the seventies – no one was interested in it, no one wanted to see the film. Today, it’s a classic, in a way. And so it found its audience, and so it will prove with White Diamond. It’s one of the best movies that I’ve made, and it will outlive Grizzly Man. It has more depth than Grizzly Man, and it will have a longer life.


Q:Does that bother you, that Grizzly Man captured an audience where White Diamond didn’t?
A:No, because you never really know, you never really know. No, it doesn’t bother me at all. It is what it is. Some stories take longer than others to take root with audiences. I’ve been too long in this business, and you cannot plan how a movie is going to be received.


Q:You’re 65 now, and you seem to be incredibly active in this field still. Is there a part of you considering the notion of spending the last few decades of your life staring at cattle on some remote farm?
A:No, I think they’re going to have to carry me out. I should say, your questions suggest that perhaps you think I’m a raving workaholic, and although I’ve made quite a lot of films, I’m methodical, and I’m ploughing on, but I have long, healthy pauses in-between my movies. I was amazed that they had 54 films for that retrospective. I didn’t realise I’d done so much.


Q:Is your life generally taken up with your work? You’ve been married, you’ve got two kids, so, do you sometimes switch off completely from making films?
A:Of course. I’ve done other things besides making films. I’ve travelled on foot, I’ve raised children, I’ve acted in movies. I’ve got two films out there right now, and I’m in Harmony Korine’s film too, which is out this week. I’m also staging opera, and I’m planning to do one in Spain. So, things are moving. I don’t tend to stand still for too long…


Q:Have to ask about the beautifully insane Klaus Kinski…
A:The man some people think I call My Best Friend, but, no, that documentary’s actually called My Best Fiend. Some idiots cannot read English, and they tell me it’s called My Best Friend.


Q:Is there a part of you that wished you had never shared that apartment on Elizabethstrabe growing up? Klaus did make your life pretty difficult at times…
A:Well, the answer is a one and a half hour film I made on our relationship, My Best Fiend, but no, Kinski was important in my work, but we should not forget that I made 50 films without Kinski. There’s are strong films before, during and after Kinski. And Kinski made 210 films, and only five films with me.


Q:Would it be fair to say that you’re a happy man these days?
A:Happiness, I’ve never cared for. It’s a very American concept. The pursuit of happiness has always been something that strikes me as very odd. Happiness is a goal in life, and I don’t have goals in life. But I have goals in existence, and I make that distinction.


Q:And what are you goals? To be satisfied?
A:No, that plays into this happiness bullshit. No, instead of happiness, there should be meaning in one’s life. At least in mine – I don’t want to preach to others.


Q:Have you made it over to Ireland?
A:Oh, yes, a couple of times. I love Connemara, and I’ve been on Croke Patrick, filming during the pilgrimage. And I’ve been all along that coast, and filmed on Skellig Rock too. Actually, what is significant is that two days ago I founded a company here in Los Angeles which is called Skellig Rock Incorporated. It’s a small company, one to run here in the United States. Skellig Rock Incorporated. I love this rock, and it’s so significant to me. I made a series of books, published in Germany, and on the back cover of each of these books – which are all black – you see a window, and through it, Skellig Rock. I can tell you something, if I have to go into exile, because of fascism rising again in Germany, or rising here in the United States, I would show up in Connemara.

Words : Paul Byrne

Rescue Dawn is out on DVD now