“I have never been a tourist,” Werner Herzog says. Instead, he adds in his sonorous Teutonic accent, “I travel when there’s a deep existential quest behind it. I do not stroll.”
If you’re at all familiar with Herzog’s work, this won’t be a surprise. The 75-year-old director and screenwriter is intense — often hilariously so — and relentless in his pursuit of truth and humanity in all its savagery, glory, and ridiculousness. He’s a man drawn to extremes: geographical, physical, emotional. Over a swashbuckling half-century-plus career in film — some 75 movies and counting — the steely-eyed Bavarian has pursued one thing above all: “For me,” he says, “filmmaking is about a sense of awe.”
Herzog started out making mostly fiction movies: fantastical narratives about obsessive conquistadors and anarchic dwarfs who were often most famous for the grueling circumstances of their creation (e.g., 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, in which the director forced his crew to drag a 340-ton steamship over an Amazonian mountain). But for the past 25 years, he’s been mostly a documentarian on a quest, as he puts it, to “know the hearts of men.” He’s plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul (2011’s death-row documentary Into the Abyss) and chronicled those perched on the edges of existence (Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica, and Happy People, on the Siberian taiga). In some cases, such as 2005’s unforgettable Grizzly Man — the tragic story of a bear enthusiast killed by his beloved animals in the Alaskan wilderness — he did both at once.
Herzog has been a seeker since he was a teen, striking out from his native Munich to wander through Greece, Albania, Egypt, Sudan. “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot,” he says. “And when I say ‘travel on foot,’ I do not mean with a backpack, where you have your tent, your sleeping bag, your cooking utensils.” He made his first film in 1962 with money he’d saved working the night shift as a welder in a German steel factory. Since then, his work has found him in landscapes most people never dream of: the ice fields of Patagonia, the mountains of Tibet, the jungles of Thailand, the burning oil fields of post–Gulf War Kuwait. Now in his eighth decade, he’s as dauntless as ever: His latest two films — Queen of the Desert, a biopic starring Nicole Kidman about archaeologist and explorer Gertrude Bell; and this month’s Salt and Fire, a drama about surviving an erupting volcano — were filmed in the deserts of Morocco and the Bolivian salt flats, respectively.
Throughout his travels, Herzog has been beaten, jailed, threatened by armies, nearly killed by volcanoes, and shot. Herzog insists he’s always careful. “I do sometimes do risky things, but I’m not a daredevil,” he says. His proof? “In the 70-something films I’ve made, not one actor was ever hurt.” How about the crew? “Some of them were hurt,” Herzog allows. “But normally, I am the first one.”
Indeed, Herzog does not consider himself to be a particularly adventurous person. He has little use for adrenaline addicts like free climbers (“Frivolous with the gift of life,” he says) or wingsuit pilots (“It’s suicidal. Those who do it will probably perish”). But whether he admits it or not, he shares more than a little of their intrepid DNA. “There have been quite a few moments where I was very, very close to losing my life,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say I’ve ever experienced such a thing as fear. Death is hereditary. The universe is completely uninterested.
Asked when he is the happiest, Herzog replies, “I don’t really care about this concept happiness. It’s a very American concept.” He laughs that perfect, dry German laugh. “Other things,” he says, “are more important.” –Josh Eells
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