On Werner Herzog and making art

Photo by my wife, starring me as Werner Herzog and Reaz Mahmood as Klaus Kinski.

I will long remember the summer of 2011 as my Summer of Herzog.

Herzog and Kinski during the filming of "Cobra Verde."

I first became aware of German filmmaking genius Werner Herzog more than 20 years ago, when I was a teenager. I am a longtime fan of the British post-punk band Joy Division, and as any true follower of the band knows, Herzog’s inscrutable cinematic ballad “Stroszek” was the last movie that Joy Division signer Ian Curtis watched on the night he committed suicide in May 1980. I have watched “Stroszek” three times and have yet to understand it. I will probably never understand it. Cultural critics have long tried to dissect the connection between the death of the protagonist in “Stroszek” and the death of Curtis, but I believe that any speculation on the reasons for any person’s suicide is ultimately conjecture, an invasion of privacy that can yield no clear answers.

For me, Herzog’s work also yields no clear answers, a similarity that I think cuts to the heart of filmmaking, art making, and meaning making of any kind.

Earlier this summer, I drove up to Modesto with my wife Tracy and our good friends Reaz Mahmood and Susan Currie Sivek to see Herzog’s latest documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” It was a strange and wonderful little picture, uncomfortable to watch at times and filled with Herzog’s classic wonder and philosophy. Like all the documentaries Herzog has made in the last decade, it made you giggle at the audacity of the filmmaker’s questions about people’s dreams, but it also somehow made you giggle at yourself for living, right here, right now, in this absurd moment. You wondered: Why haven’t I asked the same questions Herzog is asking? What are my days worth? My own dreams?

Kinski and his phonograph in "Fitzcarraldo."

On a recommendation from my good friend Kurt Hegre, Reaz and I checked out two of Herzog’s most critically acclaimed films, “Aguirre, Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” Both of us were stunned at the staggering filmmaking of Herzog and the maniacal acting of Klaus Kinski in each. These two films then led us to two documentaries about Herzog and Kinski, “Burden of Dreams” and “My Best Fiend,” which each give candid context to the volatile relationship between two geniuses, as well as deeper insights into the impulses that drive Herzog to make the kinds of impossible movies that he makes. Check out this YouTube clip from “Burden of Dreams,” in which Herzog riffs on the obscenities of the jungle:

The thing that I admire about Herzog is his uncompromising quest to understand himself and the nature of dreams. Reaz and I have talked a lot about how Herzog’s extremes as a filmmaker–his insistence on plunging himself and his crew into life-threatening scenarios in order to get a more “real” representation of their experience on film–are, on one hand, admirable. But on the other hand, I think we agree that every person who makes art of any kind has to establish that boundary for him or herself. An amazingly funny and accurate web series spoofs Herzog’s beyond-intense immersion tactics. (Hours of fun!) But for me, Herzog’s point is made: Don’t make art unless you are willing to sacrifice for it, unless you are willing to answer the very biggest questions, unless you are willing to spend your whole life trying to understand your dreams. If you don’t strive for meaning, as Herzog says, “We only sound and look like badly pronounced and half finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel.”

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