The Most Interesting Man in the World

Werner Herzog shares a warm moment with collaborator and nemesis Klaus Kinski.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski share a warm moment.

With all due respect to the “Stay thirsty, my friends” guy, in my opinion the most interesting man in the world right now is filmdirektor Werner Herzog. Perhaps best known in this country for the documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog has a long and distinguished resume including six feature films starring honest-to-God madman Klaus Kinski, about whom Herzog also made the doc My Best Fiend.

What makes Werner Herzog the most interesting man in the world? So many things—here is a quick bulleted list:

  • In 1974, Herzog was told that Lotte Eisner, a film historian whom he admired, was seriously ill. He decided that by walking from Munich to Paris, a distance of about 500 miles, through harsh winter conditions, he would somehow save her life. Herzog completed the journey, as recounted in his book Of Walking on Ice, and Eisner did in fact live nine more years.

  • Herzog’s movie Fitzcarraldo depicts a steamship being pulled over a mountain in South America. Practical people like the studio heads wanted to film this sequence using a model, or perhaps in a botanical garden in San Diego. As Herzog says in his book Conquest of the Useless, “I told them the unquestioned assumption had to be a real steamship being hauled over a real mountain, though not for the sake of realism but for the stylization characteristic of grand opera. The pleasantries we exchanged from then on wore a thin coating of frost.”
  • Speaking of Conquest of the Useless, a particular moment from this book—Herzog’s personal journal from the Fitzcarraldo period—has stuck in my head. It comes as Herzog and his crew are passing through a remote Peruvian village. “A fairly young, intelligent-looking man with long hair asked me whether filming or being filmed could do harm, whether it could destroy a person. In my heart the answer was yes, but I said no.”
  • Herzog’s tempestuous relationship with Kinski is legendary: two strong personalities who needed and loathed each other. “Every gray hair on my head I call Kinski,” Herzog said, though he also said “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder.”
  • In the late 70s Herzog became acquainted with documentarian Errol Morris, then a young filmmaker struggling to complete his first project. Herzog challenged Morris by promising to eat his shoe if Morris ever finished the movie. The result is chronicled in the 1980 short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which shows Herzog consulting with Alice Waters about how best to prepare the shoe, then consuming it with beer in front of an audience at Berkeley’s own UC Theatre.
  • In the course of a few days in 2008, Herzog was shot with an air rifle on camera during an interview, then was the first witness on the scene of a one-car accident involving actor Joaquin Phoenix. Interesting events just seem to follow him around.

Herzog’s latest venture is the Rogue Film School, a typically idiosyncratic series of seminars. You can read its 11-point syllabus-cum-manifesto here. I particularly like #9: “Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.” His next movie scheduled for release is some sort of sequel/remake/reinvention of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant, which is remembered mostly as a vehicle for the naked and screaming Harvey Keitel. The new movie stars Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer, and whether either of them tried to murder Werner Herzog, I don’t know, but apparently Abel Ferrara would like to:

In a June 2008 interview with The Guardian, Abel Ferrara, who directed and co-wrote the original Bad Lieutenant (1992), said that finding out his movie was being remade was “a horrible feeling”, “like when you get robbed”, and that those involved in this remake “should all die in hell.” (IMDB)

I can’t for the life of me imagine what might have led Herzog, who has always written his own films and avoided any taint of commercialism, to get involved in this project. The whole thing is perplexing and rather perverse, but I trust that it will somehow be worthwhile. And that’s about all we have time for today. Stay thirsty, my friends.

2 Responses to “The Most Interesting Man in the World”

  1. Knox Bronson Says:

    What about the time he walked 1000 miles in one month to his girlfriend’s house so he could tell her that he had done that and ask her to marry him upon arriving on her doorstep?

  2. Merle Baggard Says:

    Good stuff Bill, I love the Errol Morris connection.
    To be a great artist, one has to be totally koo koo.

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