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Werner Herzog Talks About Madmen And Caves In Interviews From 'Fresh Air' Archives


Many of the films mentioned in John's review and included in the new Werner Herzog box set star the same actor - Klaus Kinski, who died in 1991. Kinski usually portrayed larger-than-life characters driven by obsessions or plagued by demons. He was the warrior in "Aguirre The Wrath Of God," the visionary in "Fitzcarraldo," the vampire in "Nosferatu" and the murderer "Woyzeck."

"My Best Fiend," Herzog's documentary about the actor, examined their very volatile, yet productive, collaboration. It's one of the films included in the new box set. When Terry spoke with Werner Herzog in 1998, she asked him whether Klaus Kinski had a touch of madness in him, and if that made him especially good at playing madmen.


WERNER HERZOG: Yes, certainly. There was a high amount of hysteria inside this man. There was a blurred borderline between sanity and paranoia. I mean, the man was totally over the cliff sometimes. He was the most difficult one in the world. I think that a man like Marlon Brando was only kindergarten against him.

So Kinski was - he was - sometimes Kinski was the ultimate pestilence and all the other actors in the crew would say, oh, my God. How can you do this again to me - to us - to engage him again? And I said forget about all the hardships with him. He's somehow blessed. He has some touch of genius. There is something which makes it all worthwhile to go through it.


Let me ask you about your film "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" from the early 70s which Klaus Kinski stared in as the head of the Spanish expedition to Peru. And he becomes a madman. And he keeps pushing his men forward in this expedition - forward into crossing mountains and fording rivers that they can't possibly survive. And he just becomes more and more obsessed and mad as the expedition becomes more and more dangerous and more and more people die. What did you tell Kinski about the character?

HERZOG: I do believe that Kinski understood the character instantly once he read the screenplay. I sent the screenplay...

GROSS: I should say this is set in, like, 1560. I don't think I mentioned that.

HERZOG: Yes, it's Spanish conquistadors. It's El Dorado and the entire army disappears without a trace in the jungle. So that's basically the story. And a madman - Kinski - grasps power and grabs power and leads everyone into inevitable death.

GROSS: So you were saying what you told him about the role.

HERZOG: He read the screenplay, and three days later, I had a call at three in the morning. It lasted until four, and I could not understand who was on the line because there were these inarticulate screams for half an hour. And I had the feeling I should stay on the phone.

And I realized it was Kinski. And he kept screaming. Then it became a little bit more articulate that this was the figure he always wanted to play. This was the role for him, and I had the feeling the man had understood exactly what it was all about.

GROSS: The last line he speaks in the film after he's gone completely mad, and everybody is basically dead - he says we will endure. I am Aguirre, the wrath of God. Who else is with me?

HERZOG: Well, you have to know the situation. He's on a raft with dying and dead Spaniards floating down into some void of the Amazon basin and hundreds of little monkeys have invaded the raft. And he - they swarm all around him, and he grabs a monkey. And he talks to the monkey, and he - mad as he is - he is planning to found the purest dynasty on earth with his own daughter, who is actually dying. And he talks to the monkey, and he says I am the wrath - I am Aguirre. I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me? And then tosses the monkey away.

GROSS: There's a wonderful camera shot. You know, you described this last scene here in which Kinski's, you know, saying I am Aguirre, the wrath of God. And everyone - the raft that he's on is just in complete shambles. And all the remaining people are either dying, or they're already dead. And as you said, you know, the monkeys have invaded the raft, and they're all over.

And the camera first kind of, like, zooms across the river to the raft and then circles around the raft in this slow but still kind of dizzying shot. Would you talk to me about that shot? It's really a magnificent shot. It's the shot that closes the movie.

HERZOG: Yeah. It's the most simple thing you can do. Everybody thought it was a very complicated type of helicopter shot. It was actually a regular speedboat. And I maneuvered it myself because I have a very good sense in my body how fast the camera should approach and then circle around the raft. The only problem is that when you slow your boat down coming from such a speed, you create a huge wake which overtakes you. And you have to look behind you and see what is happening.

And so I kept looking at the camera, and I kept looking at the wake behind me. And I hardly could see the raft. I almost collided a couple of times with it. And I kept circling around it until we actually collided, but by then the film in the camera had run out.

GROSS: There's such intensity on Kinski's face in the film. And I'm wondering how he prepared for the role. What advice you gave him for that role, and how he prepared for it to capture the madness, the obsession?

HERZOG: There is no rule for that. I'm not into this kind of method acting like Lee Strasburg studio. I just loathe these kind of endless talks about a character. It went in a different way.

Sometimes, for example, when Aguirre turns mad, and he declares to his men that he was the wrath of God. And he threatens them, and says everyone who ever just takes one grain of corn too much will be imprisoned for 155 years. And he says if I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees, the birds will drop dead from the trees.

So we had the text. Kinski wanted to play it - to scream and throw a tantrum and have a fit of insanity. And I had the feeling it would be much, much better to have it at very low level - totally reduced, totally dangerous, almost in whispers. So I provoked Kinski with a very nasty remark. And Kinski started to scream and throw a tantrum.

So he kept screaming for one and a half hours until there was froth at his mouth. And then he had exhausted himself. He was kind of finished and destroyed. And then I said roll the camera. And I said, Klaus, this is wonderful now. Let's try it, and keep it very, very low in voice. Do it. And he did it, and he did it once. And that was it. And it's one of the greatest scenes I've ever seen on the screen.

BIANCULLI: Film director Werner Herzog speaking to Terry Gross in 1998. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Let's get back Terry's 1998 interview with Werner Herzog, the German film director whose work is showcased on Blu-ray in a new 16-disc set from Shout! Factory.


GROSS: Now, you made two films - well, two films that I know of - with Kinski in the jungle - "Aguirre" and "Fitzcarraldo." Did you get along well in the jungle together? I mean, I imagine that making a film in the juggle - I know that making a film on the jungle is exceptionally difficult. And I know "Fitzcarraldo" had many, many difficulties that you had to overcome. But what did that do to your relationship with Kinski?

HERZOG: Of course, there were moments of great harmony, and there were moments of unbelievable confrontations, and one of the worst was, for no reason whatsoever, Kinski threatened to leave the set 11 days before the end of shooting.

GROSS: Which film was this?

HERZOG: I'm speaking of " Aguirre, the Wrath of God" - so my first film together with him. And he packed all his things into a speedboat and he was just about to leave. Of course, that would destroyed the entire film, and I told him that I had, somehow, made up my mind months ago what would be the borderline of what could be acceptable and not. And, of course, the film, in my fill opinion, was at more value than his or my private feelings and disgust or whatever. And I said to him, if you leave the set now, you will reach the bend - the next bend of the river and I will shoot you - will have eight bullets through your head, and the last one is going to be for me. So the bastard somehow realized that this was not a joke anymore. It wouldn't have taken me one second to deliberate. And he sensed that. And he screamed for help. He screamed for the crew to help him - assist him against this madman - and he meant me. He screamed for police. But, of course, the next police station was 450 miles away. Result was that he was very docile during the last 11 days of shooting, and we finished the film.

GROSS: You really think you would have shot him?

HERZOG: If I tried to put myself into the situation, and that was back in 1972 - beginning of '72 - so 27 years ago - yes, I think so.

GROSS: Was he angry with you? Did he think you were pushing him too hard for the movie?

HERZOG: No, no, no - it was just, somehow, he had forgotten his lines, and he would always loaded look for an excuse. And he screamed that an assistant soundman had grinned at him and I had to dismiss him on the spot. And I said, no - number one, he didn't grin. And even if he had grinned, we just repeat that thing, and we take him out of your line of eyesight. That's all right. And I cannot - and he, ultimately, demanded me to dismiss him right on the spot. And, of course, the entire crew would've walked out of the film if I had done such an injustice. It was his fault. It was his mistake. He just did not - was unprepared and didn't know his lines anymore. In the moment, he stopped - he would find some sort of an opponent or some reason why he had stumbled.

GROSS: So it was basically a really large temper tantrum?

HERZOG: It was more than that. It was close to - very close to insanity.

GROSS: Oh, OK, yeah. I want to ask you about another film that you made with Klaus Kinski and that's "Nosferatu." I love this version of the vampire story. Instead of the kind of dapper count that most Americans are familiar with through Bela Lugosi, he's a very rat-like ghoul, but one who seems very pained by his sentence of interminable life and pained by the fact that he has to drink people's blood. But it's indelible. He must. He has to. And he does it. Would you talk a little bit about your vision of "Nosferatu"?

HERZOG: Well, my "Nosferatu" is based on the greatest German film ever, in my opinion at least - Murnau's silent classic "Nosferatu," which Murnau did in 1924. And as a German filmmaker after the war, we grew up as - not only me, but all my peers - we grew up as a fatherless generation - as a generation of orphans. Our fathers either had fled the country, were chased out or they had sided with the barbarism of the Nazi regime. So we had no one to learn from, and we started to look out for our grandfathers. And that was Murnau, Fritz Lang and others. So I just needed to connect myself with a culture, with a legitimate, great culture of Germany. And that was the culture of the grandfathers or even earlier than that. So I made this film, but of course it's an homage to Murnau and has been very important for me to do that film.

BIANCULLI: Film director Werner Herzog speaking to Terry Gross in 1998. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Back with more of Terry's 1998 interview with German film director Werner Herzog. A 16-disc box set of his films - including "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God," "Fitzcarraldo" and "Nosferatu The Vampyre" - has just been released in a limited Blu-ray addition from Shout! Factory.


GROSS: You were born in 1942 and grew up in Germany in the very end of the war and in the postwar period. I'm wondering what your early memories are of the war or the postwar period.

HERZOG: I do have clear memories of that time. You have to imagine that when I was born in Munich, only two weeks later, a bomb hit the house next to us. And our place was half destroyed and my mother discovered me, the baby, under a foot of shards of glass and debris. But I was unhurt, but my mother fled to the remotest mountain valley in Bavaria and we got stuck there. So by the age of 11, I had no idea what a telephone was. I had never seen movies. I had never seen a TV set. I barely had seen cars in my life. And you may not believe this, but I made my first film call at the age of 17. But I made my first movie at the age of 19. So that explains a little bit about the background, and of course I remember the hardships. And I remember that I was hungry as a child and we had nothing to eat. And things like this - which was quite all right because I had a wonderful childhood and I wouldn't like to miss that.

GROSS: You were very interested as a filmmaker in unusual and sometimes surrealistic kind of landscapes and extreme landscapes, whether it's, you know - it's the jungle or the desert or a bombed-out area. And I'm wondering if you had a lot of visual images like that kind of imprinted in you in the postwar era when Germany was so bombed out.

HERZOG: No. I belong to those Germans who didn't have a childhood image of the postwar Germany because in this mountain village, there was no real warfare. It was just occupied by 60 Americans at the very, very end of the war. It was the last pocket of when - of unoccupied territory when Germany shrank more and more and more. All of a sudden, this is the last remaining unoccupied square mile or whatever. And 60 Americans moved in in jeeps, and they were totally relaxed, chewed chewing gum. And I had the feeling this was all the Americans of the world, and for the first time, I saw a black man. And I was totally mesmerized by seeing him because I had only heard about black people in fairytales. And I immediately became friends with him and talked to him for hours.

So what I want to say is the climate was not the climate of total destruction that Germany had witnessed all around me. It was a mountain village - a mountain valley - remote and just nature around. And only when I was 11 and the war was well over, I saw destroyed cities and bombed out places. Everybody thinks that German children who grew up in the postwar time had a terrible childhood in the country, that nobody was frightened. All of my school friends who grew up in the cities, they were delirious about speaking of this time when they grew up in ruins and there was no - it was pure anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no fathers around to tell them what to do and how to do things. It would be the masters and the kings of, let's say, a whole block that was bombed out. And they would - it was a most wonderful playground for children.

For example, in my case in these last days of war, some soldiers had fled into this area and had hidden their weapons under the hay or in the forest. And by age 4, age 5, I had a working submachine gun and fired with it. And I tried to hunt a crow because I wanted to make a soup. I was so hungry. And my mother discovered that, and she was totally calm and explained to us how lethal a weapon like that could be by just demonstrating it by shooting one single round through a thick log of Beachwood. And we were so stunned by the violence and force of such a weapon that we immediately had a clear sense how to behave. And it was just learning by experience. And the childhood of practically all the children who grew up in the postwar time was wonderful, as strange and as paradoxical as it may sound.

BIANCULLI: Werner Herzog speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. Coming up an excerpt from their most recent conversation. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. The most recent time Terry Gross spoke with German film director Werner Herzog was in 2011, the year after he made the documentary "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams," which was not in the Blu-ray box set, but is available separately on DVD and Blu-ray, including a 3-D Blu-ray edition. It's about the Chauvet Cave in France that has paintings which are 30,000 years old. The cave had been sealed off by falling rock for over 20,000 years before French scientists discovered in the 1994.


GROSS: I was amazed at how some of the images were shaded in, and there was a certain amount of depth implied in how they were shaded. I was expecting, when I walked into your film, to see amazing line drawings and stick figures, you know (laughter) - and it's so much more sophisticated than that.

HERZOG: Well, I think art, as it bursts on the scene 32,000 years ago, is fully accomplished. It doesn't start with - I say it in quotes - "primitive scribblings" and first attempts like children would make drawings. The whole ensemble of the cave and all the paintings is awesome. So it's very hard to single out one specific part of it. But for me, the most intense of all is the so-called "Panel of Lions." You see lions - five, six, seven of them - stalking something, their eyes with incredible intensity pointed, all exactly pointed at one object. And you don't know what they are stalking. So it's really very, very beautiful, very intense, very accomplished.

GROSS: Now, the Chauvet Cave where you filmed wasn't discovered until 1994. Tell us some of the things that the keepers of the cave have been doing to keep it as untouched, as pristine as possible.

HERZOG: When they discovered the cave, they did everything right to preserve it. They immediately understood the importance of the cave. They would only very carefully move along the floor by spreading out sheets of plastic and step on it, because you could immediately see that there were fairly fresh tracks of cave bears. The cave bear actually went extinct 20,000-or-so years ago, but there are still fresh tracks of them. And, of course, later, when scientists moved in, they did it with utmost caution, never touching anything. A metal walkway was built, and you never leave this walkway.

GROSS: So once you decided you wanted to make this film about the Chauvet Cave, how did you get permission to go inside with a film crew and shoot it, considering how hard they've been working at the cave to keep people out of it so that the cave can be maintained?

HERZOG: Yes, of course it was the biggest of all battles. And we took our time. I had to approach the Ministry of Culture, but there's also the regional government which has to give its OK. And, of course, the scientists, the Council of the Scientists. And I was very lucky that the French minister of culture, Frederic Mitterrand - he's a nephew of the former president. Frederic Mitterrand turned out to be a great fan of my films. But the French can be very territorial when it comes to their own patrimoine, their patrimony, their legacy in art and culture. And, of course, me, as a Bavarian filmmaker, why am I going to do this and not a French one?

GROSS: Well, what about the regional government and the scientists? Did they know your movies, and were they open to the idea of you doing the film?

HERZOG: Well, they had to be convinced, and I had to meet the scientists, and I had to explain myself. And I had to explain myself how I would do it technically. Of course, the restrictions were enormous. I was only allowed four hours a day for a week. I was only allowed three men with me. I was only allowed to carry along what we could carry in our hands. So we couldn't move heavy equipment in there and install it - lights that would only emit light without any temperature. Of course, all the restrictions, you never step off the metal walkway. This is why the crew sometimes could not hide away. You cannot just step behind the camera and hide, because you would step on the floor of the cave. And, of course, 3-D cameras are fairly clumsy. And, of course, we were not allowed to have support from outside. You see, the climate in the cave is so delicate, they opened the steel door for entering, and they opened it for getting us out. But if you had forgotten something, yes, we would open the door again, but that would have meant the end of the day of shooting.

GROSS: And you mention it's this kind of crystal landscape. Everything is covered in this calcified crystal. What does that come from?

HERZOG: Seeping water that actually leaves layers, creates formations of stalactites and stalagmites. But it's also significant, it is so fresh, it is so as if it had been left yesterday. Things are so fresh, and all of a sudden, you see a painting of a cave bear, a charcoal painting, and about half-an-inch layer of calcite over it, which takes thousands of years to form. So you know this is not a forgery. That was actually the first indication: This is not a forgery. This is for real. And, of course, through carbon - radiocarbon dating - you can establish fairly precisely when was the painting done. There are swipe-marks of torches. You see, when a torch burns down, and in order to rekindle it, it's like cutting the wick of a - of a candle, you swipe the torch against the wall. And little fragments of charcoal were analyzed through radiocarbon dating, and we know pretty precisely when somebody swiped this torch - something, let's say, 28,400 years ago.

GROSS: Now there's a scene in your documentary about the cave in which you're talking about the possibility with all the torches inside that our ancestors would have been able to see their shadows and see shadows on the wall.

HERZOG: Yes. Most certainly, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And that leads you to think about shadow dancing, and that leads you to think about Fred Astaire and the shadow dancing scene. And then you show the Fred Astaire...

HERZOG: I couldn't help it.

GROSS: You couldn't help it.

HERZOG: I could not help it.

GROSS: No. No. I have to stop you here. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. (Laughter). I actually met you a few years ago at a reception after you - after a screening of your films at the University of Pennsylvania. And you were talking about how you had been watching Fred Astaire films. So I thought, OK. (Laughter). I see how Fred Astaire ended up in this documentary about a 30,000-year-old cave because you were watching Fred Astaire films. Go ahead. Yes.

HERZOG: Yes, that is correct. Yeah. It is for me, certainly the greatest singing sequence in all of film history, Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadows. And all of a sudden he stops and the shadows become independent and dance without him and he has to catch up with them. I mean it's just so quintessential movie. It can't be, it can't get more beautiful. It's actually from "Swing Time." And when you look at the cave and there are certain panels, there's evidence of some fires on the ground. They were not for cooking. They were - because there's no evidence of any habitation in there. They were used for illumination. You have to step in front of these fires to look at the images. And, of course, when you move you must see your own shadow. And immediately Fred Astaire comes to mind, who did something 32,000 years later, which is essentially what we can imagine for early Paleolithic people.

GROSS: Now, the question comes up: what's the difference between a Werner Herzog documentary about a cave and anybody else's, you know, a National Geographic documentary about a cave? And I think you just answered that in a way (laughter).

HERZOG: I think...

GROSS: Your imagination is seeing all of these connections. Suddenly Fred Astaire is shadow dancing in your movie and, you know, you're - you're talking, you know, in your narration not just about the fact but about things that makes you think about.

HERZOG: Yes. And our imagination, and our entire approach as human beings. How do we enter a cave like this? How do we experience it? How does it surpass our wildest dreams? All this I think you would not see in a National Geographic documentary.

GROSS: As wonderful as those National Geographic documentaries are (laughter).

HERZOG: Mine are better.


HERZOG: Sorry for saying that. I say it only in quotes.

GROSS: OK. (Laughter).

HERZOG: My apologies. National Geographic, accept my apologies. But I think I - no, my films are different and I think the way I shot and present "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams" is different and it's a - it's a position which moves away from what you normally expect from a documentary.

GROSS: I'll just say I'm glad that your films and National Geographic films exist and...

HERZOG: All right.


HERZOG: Let's accept it like that.


HERZOG: There is cohabitation.

GROSS: Cohabitation. Exactly.


GROSS: So, when I was watching your cave documentary, and there were references to cave bears that existed then and are now long extinct.


GROSS: I couldn't help but think of the documentary that you made "Grizzly Man," which is such a terrific film. And it's a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, this guy who went to the wild to film grizzly bears and saw himself as like, the friend of the grizzlies, but it was not an environment that a human belonged in and eventually he was eaten. He and his girlfriend were eaten by a bear. And he actually got that on audiotape and the audiotape survived their deaths.

So thinking about - when you were in the cave and thinking about all the cave bears that used to be in there, did you think about "Grizzly Man"?

HERZOG: I always think, in a way, about "Grizzly Man." Whenever I step out into - into nature or wild nature, I immediately have Timothy Treadwell present. And, of course, he marks a position which, of course, was tragic - a tragic misunderstanding of wild nature. He romanticized it and he saw it as if the bears were all like in Walt Disney movies, friendly, fluffy creatures. Of course, they are ferocious and they ultimately eat you and they kill you. Treadwell is always present in my life. I can't just discard this incredible man, this wonderful man in a movie. He is always around somehow.

GROSS: You seem to really be attracted to - I know I'm stating the obvious here - to extreme personalities and extreme environments. In terms of personalities you have Timothy Treadwell from "Grizzly Man," the character of Aguirre in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God." Then, of course, you're attracted to extreme environments. You did a documentary about this recently discovered cave that's 30,000 years old. You did a documentary about discoveries in Antarctica. Do you consider yourself to be an extreme personality?

HERZOG: Difficult question. No, I don't think so. I'm a professional. I'm a filmmaker. And I think what you are trying to combine makes a lot of sense. Many people tell me ah, you have been everywhere. You have shot in the Amazon, in the Sahara Desert, in Antarctica even. That would be horizontally spreading out, but I've always tried to look deep into the human condition. This is why I do a film on Timothy Treadwell. This is why I film "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" and other films. So it's always a look deep into the abyss, into the deepest recesses of the human soul or as far as you can scrutinize with a camera. And it's maybe significant - at the moment, I'm doing a film on death row inmates and I thought about a title and I came up with "Gazing Into The Abyss." And then the name of a person on death row, like Joseph Garcia on death row, Michael Perry on death row, Linda Carty on death row. But all under the umbrella title "Gazing Into The Abyss." And all of a sudden it dawned on me well, that would have been a great title for the cave film. It would have been a great title for Timothy Treadwell. It would have been a great title for "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God," as if - as if I was more somebody who is vertically looking as deep as it gets.

BIANCULLI: Werner Herzog speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. A new 16-disc Blu-ray collection of his films has recently been released by Shout! Factory. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Benjamin Booker. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.