The digital world, what a fabulous place, Werner Herzog declares from his home in Los Angeles. Fraught with danger. Filled with possibility. It is thanks to digital that he can stream his films to audiences in Africa and Asia, despite the fact that the theatres are closed. It is thanks to digital that he can receive an email from a student in Missoula, Montana and respond to her question in less than a minute. It is thanks to digital that we are able to converse over Skype, peering into each other’s houses from a 5,000-mile distance. “So this is wonderful,” he cries. “Wonderful, wonderful!” Then the connection cuts out and I have to dial his number again.
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We were meant to meet in person , but the pandemic intervened. As a director, Herzog goes about life like a pith-helmeted explorer – dragging his camera to the mouth of volcanoes, hauling a steamship up a Peruvian mountain. But he is 77 and slap-bang in the Covid-19 danger zone, and accepts that now is the time to sit tight, wait it out. The lion in winter. Napoleon stuck on Elba. I am picturing him bouncing off the walls or staring into the abyss, but he insists he’s doing fine, staying positive. “I’m constantly being made fun of as this terrible doom-sayer. The dour German. But this is not the whole story,” he says. Herzog contains multitudes. He suspects that most people do.
In any case, the director was lucky. He managed to complete work on his latest project (“a documentary about meteorites”) days before the shutters came down. Then there is the excellent Family Romance, LLC, a fictional feature that veers so close to documentary that Variety initially assumed that it was. It tells the tale of a true-life Japanese agency that – in its words – “creates illusions to make the lives of our clients better”. Specifically, this involves dispatching paid performers to impersonate a long-lost father, or play the paparazzi who pursue a failed model, or a blue-collar fall guy who shoulders the blame for his employer. The owner of the Family Romance agency is a smirking thirtysomething named Yuichi Ishii. He plays himself in the film, or at least a version of himself. “Because he is not telling his own story,” Herzog cautions. “He is telling my story. My film. My story.”
In recent years, Herzog has developed an occasional sideline as an actor himself. He played a dastardly crime boss opposite Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher and the wild-eyed owner of a haunted house on Parks and Recreations. Last year, he appeared (alongside Baby Yoda) in Jon Favreau’s Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian, despite never having watched a Star Wars film in his life. “Doesn’t matter,” he barks. “You exaggerate the importance.”
Anyway, Herzog adds, pushing his spectacles up his nose, the point is that the money he made from acting in The Mandalorian was used to bankroll Family Romance, LLC. He shot it on video, in Japan, using non-professional actors and what he refers to as “intelligent translators” – although the budget was still so pinched that he was forced to shoot without permits and plot his film like a heist. Out of this frenetic activity came a picture that is quiet, moving and melancholy. Family Romance, LLC paints an off-kilter portrait of modern-day loneliness. It also raises the possibility that every human relationship is, at heart, a performance. Herzog nods. “The film is deceptively simple on the surface,” he says. “But these are deep, deep questions.”
Maybe they are questions that he asks of himself. Once, long ago, he was just another Euro arthouse film-maker, the creator of malarial marvels such as Aguirre, Wrath of God, Woyzeck and Fitzcarraldo. Today, he is a brand name, a meme, the mad professor from central casting with his clipped accent, deliberate manner and sudden explosions of Old Testament rage. He must occasionally feel that he’s playing the role of Werner Herzog in someone else’s movie.
“No,” he says. “I play parts in films. And normally it’s villains. I have to spread fear among the audience, that’s what I do. But, yes, I’ve also done more stylised things, like guest roles on The Simpsons. Also, my voice in documentaries is in some ways a stage voice – I’ve found a voice the audience understands and likes. And also I live the life of 20 or 30 different Herzogs out there on the internet. There are a lot of impostors. Voice imitators. If you find me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter it’s a forgery, an invented persona. Some are hilarious, some are silly, some are mediocre.” He clears his throat and regroups. “So to answer your original question, no but yes. I understand that the representation of self is not as it used to be.”
I play parts in films. Normally it's villains. I have to spread fear among the audience, that’s what I do
The director sits bolt upright inside his book-lined study. His glasses are perched on the bridge of his nose. His fleece is zipped to his chin. “Your face has stuck,” he announces with disgust. “You will have to hang up and dial the number again.”
Herzog’s early years read like a Bildungsroman, like something he had immortalised in one of his own films. Born in Nazi Germany in 1942, he was raised in splendid seclusion, in a Bavarian mountain village. He saw his first movie at 11, made his first telephone call at 17 and had founded his first production company before his 20th birthday, using a camera he had stolen from the Munich film school. His career and current status is a triumph of self-actualisation. And possibly self-mythologising, too, because the man is a canny circus barker, keen to ensure that we print the legend. “I made a film called Even Dwarfs Started Small with an entire midget cast,” he announces at one point, apropos of nothing. “I did a feature film, Heart of Glass, where I hypnotised all the cast.”
His tales may be salted, but they are, by and large, true, just as the films themselves stir documentary realism in with wanton, stylised fabrication to the point where the usual genre labels no longer apply. In terms of subject matter, he has always been drawn to wild corners and dark pockets, be it the Chauvet caves of southern France, bear-infested west Alaska or the fevered psyches of his fictional anti-heroes. Every production is a quest. Every film is a quarry – something to be pursued with bows and arrows, or coaxed out of the forest and invited to eat from your hand. Herzog’s finest work (the ethnographic documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, say, or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, his tale of a 19th-century German foundling) touches on the sublime. But even his misfires and experiments are never without interest.
His original surname was Stipetić (reflecting his Austrian mother’s Croatian heritage) but he reinvented himself, taking his father’s surname long after his father had left the scene. He still has Stipetić siblings; they look at him askance. He chuckles. “How should I say this? My younger brother is critical of my work. He finds some of my films awful. And my older brother, he thinks every single film I’ve made is lousy and boring. ‘Argh, you’ve done another one. My butt is getting numb.’ But this is fine. I’m transparent. I do not hide behind the films or hunker down in the trench. I stick my head up. And I can live with that because I know who I am. I’m at ease with who I am.”
Has that always been so? Did he never have a midlife crisis? “No. It’s very strange, but I have never been my actual age. For a start, I grew up later than my peers. Physically, you know – my puberty was late. Then at age 19 I started making films, which is work you don’t normally do until you’re 35. All the years when you learn your craft, become an apprentice, train to become a clockmaker or doctor – I jumped them. And it’s odd because it means that I have never lived my proper age. That’s why I don’t have much contact with my peers.”
So what would he say his natural peer group is? “Well, it shifts,” he says. “Today it’s 15-year-olds. Because many of my films are accessible on the internet and the 15-year-olds are discovering them and are completely excited by them and write me emails about them.”
That’s hardly a relationship of equals, Werner. That’s the master film-maker consenting to hang out with his fans.
“No, it’s not fans,” he insists. “I always sever my contact with fans instantly. It’s unhealthy. You have to be vigilant. But this is different. It’s a discourse with people who have very specific questions. Usually about Kaspar Hauser.”
By this point, thank heavens, the Skype connection has settled. The interview has started to loosen into a chat. Herzog explains that his wife, Lena, is in the next room and that they’re both managing to keep busy during lockdown. Happily, the house is full of books. He swings the laptop around to show off all the shelves. “A 180-degree pan,” he cries, a director to the last.
Fifteen-year-olds are discovering my films and are completely excited by them and write me emails about them
Ideally, he would be out on a shoot right now. Until then there are books. Herzog reads voraciously; he says that all the good directors do. It doesn’t even have to be great literature. His friend, the documentary maker Errol Morris, recently recommended that he read a real piece of crap. “It was a bad book by a failed lion tamer. His arm was bitten off by a lion. He wrote with the other arm. And it’s a wonderful book to read because you have to comb the content against the texture and it gives you fabulous insights into human nature. It is the same with 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.”
Does he read in English or German? “Ha,” he says, as though I have fallen into his trap. “I read in other languages, too. I read in Spanish and I read in Latin and I read in ancient Greek and I read in, er, whatever. 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.”
Language, it occurs, is a running theme in Herzog’s work. It was first apparent in Last Words, his 1968 study of a Greek hermit who refuses to speak, and it extends right through to Family Romance, LLC with its army of intelligent translators. Heart of Glass and Kaspar Hauser suggest that language is at once an artificial social construct and the mould that shapes us, defines us. In which case it must follow that we become slightly different people depending on the language that we speak. Herzog, for his part, has led a life in translation. Does he have a different sense of himself when he is speaking in English or German?
He scratches his cheek. The question has him stumped. “But one thing I will say. My wife grew up in Siberia. Her mother tongue is Russian. My mother tongue is Bavarian. Which is not even German, it’s a dialect. But we decided, 25 years ago, that we would not speak in German or Russian to each other. Both of us leave the comfort zone of our language, and we communicate in English. This means that we are very cautious and careful. We are trying to articulate our feelings as closely as we can in a foreign tongue. And the result? In 25 years there has not been a single foul word that has passed between us.”
That’s interesting, I tell him. So does he think that speaking in a second language somehow makes him more respectful and considerate?
“Ha,” says Herzog, The pedant pounces. “English is not my second language. My second language is German.”
Fine, I say. Third language then.
“Ha,” says Herzog. “My third language is Latin.” No question can pin him, no lockdown can hold him. He will keep reading, raging, sparring clear through until Christmas.
• Family Romance, LLC is out 3 July
• This article was amended on 19 June. An original caption said a photograph depicted Werner Herzog with Klaus Kinski during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. This has been changed.