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Life Lessons From Werner Herzog

A night at the museum with the legendary German director.

May 10, 2017
Life Lessons From Werner Herzog Werner Herzog in conversation Todd L. Burns at the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.   Stacy Kranitz / Red Bull Content Pool

On Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Red Bull Music Academy Festival hosted “A Conversation with Werner Herzog On Music and Film.” Now 74, Herzog has spent decades pinging between awe-inspiring documentaries and bonkers feature films. (The range is preposterous: only one man could have made both the delicately tragic Grizzly Man and the Nicolas-Cage-on-full-Nicolas-Cage flick Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.) Herzog plunges deep into South American jungles and climbs active volcanos and generally does whatever the hell he wants and never, ever stops. All of which is to say that this is as good a person as any to take advice from. At the Met, in his trademark Teutonic monotone, he let some gems fly.


1. Face Your Phobias

Considering the location of the conversation, it was a good time for a confession from Herzog. “I have difficulty entering museums,” he said. “I might eventually come without fears, but I’m a little bit scared because I always have the impression that eternity is staring at you.” And yet, the fear didn’t stop him from speaking at the Met or, a few years back, participating in the Whitney Biennale with a multimedia piece on on the 17th century landscape artist Hercules Seghers.

When the Whitney first asked him, “I immediately said, ‘I do not feel comfortable with contemporary art. You look at the garbage that is sometimes heaped into a corner and declared art. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ On the phone the curator said to me, ‘But you’re an artist yourself — artists love to participate in the Biennale.’ I said, ‘I’m not an artist, I’m a soldier’ and hung up.”

2. Sometimes, Take The L

“I’m somehow rumored to be the guy who doesn’t take no for an answer,” Herzog said in response to a question from the audience. “That’s silly. Of course I take no for an answer.” As examples, he cited his 2016 active-volcano documentary Into The Inferno.

For the movie’s opening, Herzog had plotted a gorgeous slow pan in which we see the rise of a volcano and then plummet into its fiery pit. “In an instant, in an instant, I knew that this had to be orthodox church choir,” he said of the corresponding soundtrack; quickly he found a monastery with music he loved. But when he sought clearance, “We got a categorical no. We cannot use this music, we found out, because in the orthodox [tradition], the voices are voices of angels, and you cannot superimpose voices of angels over images of Hell. And for the orthodox, Hell is a physical place on our planet. It is not an abstract.” Herzog then showed us the shot as he’d originally conceived it, saying, “I have to stop before you look into the fire. I made a promise to them.”

“We had to accept the challenge,” he said. “That’s what we do.”


He also reflected on such obstacles can become inspirations. With his 1972 conquistadores classic Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, he had “a grand total budget of $370,000 for the entire feature film. Everything. People told me, ‘This is gonna be too expensive, you can’t make it.’” I said, ‘Within the tiny budget I can do it.’ And I did it.”

Life Lessons From Werner Herzog Into The Inferno.   Courtesy of Netflix
3. Embrace Music From Unexpected Places

At one point, Herzog raved about the beauty of speech from Muhammad Ali and Dieter Dengler, the fast-talking star of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly (in which Dengler recalls how he escaped captivity under the North Vietnamese Army): “Those two, the true greatest rappers.”

He also reminisced about his 1976 documentary on livestock auctioneers, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. “This ultrafast sing-song of voice, it’s just amazing. I always had the feeling, number one, it’s like music. Number two it is in a way, the last poetry, or the only poetry of capitalism. I found it beautiful, with extraterrestrial qualities. And for a long time I had the feeling that I’d like to stage Hamlet with auctioneers. And I would like to bring Hamlet down to under 14 minutes. I haven’t done it yet.”

4. Don't Shy Away From Contentious Collaborators

Herzog said that after disagreements with the composer Florian Fricke, who was one of his longest-running collaborators, the two would at times play soccer. “We would put up two small goals and, man, would he foul me. And I would have some bruises, and I kept limping. But I kicked back sometimes. Hard.”

Fricke also “would play very dirty tricks on me sometimes. I have a communication defect: I understand jokes but I do not understand irony. For my first feature film I won [Germany’s] National Film Award which also comes with $300,00 in cash for your next film. I received this letter from the Minister of the Interior [about the prize]. And two days later I get a call at an odd hour of the evening. And the voice says ‘I’m the Minister of the Interior and I call you as quickly as I could because — I’m very sorry — we made a mistake. The letter that was sent out to you, it’s for somebody else.” It was shocking. Calmly I said ‘sir, you are responsible for the security of our borders. In what kind of mess is your house?!” Immediately the Minister started laughing and chuckling. I realized, ‘Florian, you prick.’”

“We had a wonderful relationship,” Herzog added of Fricke, who passed away in 2001, “and I truly miss him.”

Life Lessons From Werner Herzog Little Dieter Needs To Fly.   Courtesy of Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
5. Be Aware Of The Signs All Around You

Herzog first took note of the power of Presley “when the first Elvis movie came to Munich. And twenty minutes into the film, the young kids, mostly young men, stood up from their seats and quietly and methodically demolished the theater. I thought, ‘This is big.’ A similar thing [happened] with [seeing the] Rolling Stones for the first time. I went into the arena in Pittsburgh. 13,000 people packed. They had plastic seats you couldn’t rip out. And after the concert, we walked out and I saw, every third or fourth of these plastic seats was steaming with urine. The girls had peed themselves. And I thought, ‘This is gonna be big.’”

6. Learn How To Work With Animals

In his 1977 comedy Stroszek, Herzog concocted a famous ending revolving around a dancing chicken. It turned out he’d trained the chicken, somewhat mercilessly, to dance precisely in the manner that he wanted. When the interviewer asked him what his problem with chickens was, Herzog said, “I have nothing against chickens. I like to eat them. They are scary because they are so phenomenally stupid. If you look from eye to eye there is two millimeters of brain in between, and it’s staggering. But I have found out about hypnotizing chickens — you can put their beak on the ground and draw a quick straight line on the ground and they’re hypnotized by it. And so it’s some sort of relief for me. [Pause] Otherwise I like them roasted.”

7. Don't Go Where You Don't Belong

At the end of the night, after a meanderingly epic conversation, the subject of terraforming Mars was somehow broached. And our guy Werner, you would not be surprised to hear, had some very strong opinions. “You’d need to machine-gun fire, every thirty seconds, rockets with hundreds of robots and they’ll build, let’s say a cupola, and then we send hundreds more rockets, rapid fire, to bring up water. So it’ll be so phenomenally complex that it’s not gonna happen. We may wanna send an astronaut or two in a little toilet box. But it’s one thousand times easier to build a colony at the bottom of our oceans then to build a colony up on Mars. Look after the habitability of our planet, rather than looking to make Mars habitable. We don’t belong there. We don’t belong there.”

The dancing chicken from Stroszek.   Werner Herzog Filmproduktion /
Life Lessons From Werner Herzog