An Interview with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog (birth name: Werner H. Stipetic) was born on September 5, 1942, in Munich. He was raised in a small mountain village in Bavaria and never had access to films, television, or phones while growing up.

At the age of fourteen, he began to wander, and at seventeen he made his maiden phone call.

During high school, he worked the night shift as a welder in a steel plant to finance his first films, which he made in 1961 when he was nineteen.

Since then, he has produced, penned, and directed more than forty films, written over a dozen books of prose, and directed a similar number of operas.

Errol Morris has had a monumental impact on the world of nonfiction filmmaking since the 1978 debut of his groundbreaking work, Gates of Heaven. With his own unique style, he has presented to the public a variety of ordinary, peculiar, and memorable pieces such as Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), The Thin Blue Line (1988), and Vernon, Florida (1981).

His latest feature-length documentary, Standard Operating Procedure (2008), was preceded by The Fog of War (2003), which earned him an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Along with the documentary, Morris has coauthored, with Philip Gourevitch, a book on Abu Ghraib also titled Standard Operating Procedure, set to be published by Penguin Press in April 2008.

In the fall of 2007, a conversation was held at Brandeis University, moderated by Alice Arshalooys Kelikian.


The concept of truth is something that has been explored and debated for centuries. It is something that has been seen as the cornerstone of any society and has been a fundamental part of our life.

People have been trying to decipher the true meaning of truth in all its forms and have come to the conclusion that it is a subjective matter. Reality, morals, and ethics all play a role in what constitutes as truth and it is often hard to determine what is real and what is not.

When I watch one of Werner Herzog’s movies, I leave the theatre with the impression that I just experienced a feature film. It’s like I’m watching Vernon, Florida or The Fog of War with the same narrative structure and atmosphere often created in a fictional movie.

The movie I recently watched, Standard Operating Procedure, seemed as if it was crafted with completely made-up characters, but it isn’t. We are familiar with the photos, the events, and the stories behind it. Nevertheless, I still leave the theater feeling as if I just watched a cinematic fiction.

Errol Morris voiced his opinion that the goal of filmmaking is to bring the viewer into a bizarre reality. He then went on to mention that Werner Herzog has a similar aim but he was unable to comprehend what the director meant when he spoke of the “ecstatic truth” in his “Minnesota Manifesto”.

I can appreciate the absurdity in Herzog’s films; they make you ponder the world we inhabit. We often feel that we comprehend this reality, yet when we witness one of his movies, we are forced to second guess ourselves. I have always held this quality in high regard; it’s the recognition of the pointlessness of it all. Ecstatic absurdity: understanding nothingness.

Ron Rosenbaum, a pal of mine, and I were discussing the concept of meaninglessness. Is there really such a thing? To which I responded: yes. Werner’s work could be seen as a lengthy exploration of the notion of meaninglessness.

WH: Gratitude expressed, yes. It’s a pleasing sensation to be acknowledged that way. [ Amused Chuckling ]

Despite my misgivings, I can’t help but question the origin of this particular way of seeing Shakespeare and poetry. I think cinema verite has gone out of style now; we’ve gone over it enough and it was the answer of the ’60s. I hope it stays buried for good.

We ought to be taking a stand against this type of structure and the postmodern and poststructuralist approaches to film studies and aesthetics. It has become a pervasive nuisance in regards to literature and cinema, and a fresh adversary that needs to be confronted more ferociously and with greater force. We should be delivering swift and effective blows to this foe wherever possible.

EM: I believe it’s precisely the same–

WH: Is it unimportant to you?

In my opinion, the main adversary is still the same – us. I like to make the point to those who want to see a regime change in Washington that what we truly require is a species change. The current species is so problematic and has become so degenerated, that it would be beneficial to have something different.

I do not believe that the issue lies with verite filmmaking, as there are many outlandish claims that have been made about it in the past. It is worth noting that Grizzly Man, which I personally adore, uses verite footage as part of its construction.

It can be argued that Treadwell was striving to be a movie star in Grizzly Man as he continually staged, directed and re-filmed himself; this is despite the fact that it is found footage.

It is certainly accurate.

WH indicated that the actor had done at least fifteen takes, but only two, three, and fourteen had been saved. This was remarkable because it showed a great level of organization. He was a major fan of science fiction, Starsky & Hutch, and Cheers. He had also auditioned for a role in Cheers, but didn’t get it. He was able to make his own part in the film instead.

One should be wary of verite. There are certain moments when he appears in Starsky & Hutch mode wearing a bandanna, the alluring camouflage bandanna. He moves away quickly on a small path and is gone for a full twelve seconds, a long time for a film. But what is there in between? Suddenly, one can spot the reed grass, with its long stems, swaying in the wind.

EM was in awe of the sequence.

WH: It seemed to me that this was an example of verite; this was where I declared my own brand of filmmaking. Each of us has our own methodology for approaching it. We must handle truth with care as it is something we will never fully understand.

EM: We likely would not even recognize it if we were to encounter it.

Despite its strangeness, I’m going to try to approach truth through making an effort and attempting to illuminate it.

EM: Right, Werner. I take back my comment about verite. Kind of. Lately, I’ve been working on a movie based on the Abu Ghraib photographs. It’s quite peculiar how these photographs, as well as Treadwell’s, involve staging. Treadwell appears to be aware of the camera and is performing for it. But, that is part of what is being captured. It is part of a verite moment. That is why I am against the idea that something that is posed is not real. The posing can be a part of the truth of what is being seen.

The thing that makes the Abu Ghraib photographs so intriguing is the fact that a great many of them were set up for the camera. They were intentionally planned. But that does not lessen the impact of the images. On the contrary, it makes them even more disturbing and appalling.

WH: Yes, some of the footage in [ Standard Operating Procedure ] wasn’t even posed. In particular, the woman who wasn’t Lynndie England was often seen with her thumb out. Unfortunately, I can’t remember her name.

Sabrina Harman is the individual being referred to as EM.

When WH is entering a picture frame, she mentioned that she didn’t know what to do with her thumb and she was demonstrating it in the pose. WH mentioned that she likes that particular moment.

I am constantly pondering the modernity of Grizzly Man–a peculiar reflection of mirrors. Treadwell, just like you, is a filmmaker; he is attempting to record his interpretation of the world in the form of visuals. Maybe that is the mission of humans.

WH: Regarding the Abu Ghraib photographs, some were arranged by the soldiers, while others were not. For example, when taking pictures from the second floor, the prisoners weren’t aware that someone was taking their picture. Is that the correct understanding?

No way, absolutely not.

In my view, the notorious human pyramid is an impressive demonstration of theatrical art–a very cruel, inhumane form of performance art. Of course, there are some that are genuine, deliberately arranged to be so.

EM affirmed with an affirmative reply.

WH: This new type of dramatic production involves the humiliation of people, with no regard for the preservation of their dignity. It is more than just a random arrangement of bodies; the disturbing and upsetting nature of the spectacle is intentionally orchestrated.

EM: Indeed. Treadwell appears to be passionate about constructing a stage featuring bear performers, and he regards himself as one of them. [ Laughter ]

Rather than just being a wildlife movie, it appears to be a display of the human experience. We all try to make sense of the events in our lives and arrange them in a way that is pleasing or agreeable, and even make them look good. Treadwell was engaged in this activity, however in an odd context. He removed almost all humans from the environment, with the exception of his partner who doesn’t appear, and replaced them with bears. It is assumed that his goal was to become the most prominent bear director ever, but it didn’t work out the way he wanted. Perhaps it did, however.

WH: It’s hard to try and explain him. People often ask me to define him, which is impossible. When I’ve tried to do so in the past, it just gets more difficult. One of his ambitions is to become a great bear actor, and he goes to great lengths to do this- going as far as getting on all fours and making bear noises, going beyond his role as the bartender in Cheers. He is striving for something much deeper.


When Werner and I first encountered one another, we decided to go on a journey and got the opportunity to observe Edmund Emil Kemper III in his prison situated in Northern California.

Yes, Vacaville was mentioned.

We were a group of four, comprising of ourselves plus Kemper’s lawyer. To make the process simpler, the lawyer presented us as psychiatrists. Walter Saxer, who was Werner’s producer, was also part of the group. Thus, Dr. Saxer, Dr. Morris, and Dr. Herzog were accepted due to the lawyer’s identification of us.

We were frightened out of our minds due to Kemper’s intimidating stature; he was a very tall individual, still in his twenties at the time, estimated to be around six feet four or five inches.

EM’s thought process is to think on a larger scale.

Perhaps larger, that is correct.

EM: Enormous.

At the moment of sentencing, capital punishment had been placed on hold. As a result, Edmund Emil Kemper elected to serve seven or eight consecutive life terms. However, he desired to die in the gas chamber, which would only be possible if he killed someone in prison. This terrified his lawyer, who was relieved to have reliable people to keep watch over his client. Examining all of the transcripts connected to Kemper, I felt that what was intriguing was that he seemed to have a valid reason for his killings and understand where it all stemmed from.

Finally, after murdering seven to eight people consisting of students and individuals hitchhiking, he killed his mother and displayed her head on the mantel. He continued to throw darts at it. In the refrigerator was leftover turkey from Thanksgiving and he asked his neighbor if she wanted it. When the neighbor came to pick it up, he killed her too and put her in a closet. After this, he drove his mother’s car across the West until his funds and fuel ran out. In Pueblo, Colorado he kept calling the police, but it seemed as though they didn’t believe him as they thought he was crazy.

EM: Repeatedly, he attempted to surrender to the police by calling from a phone booth. Of course, if he had had a cell phone then, it would have been much easier for a serial killer to give himself up. Nonetheless, the police kept ending the calls. They simply…

At the phone booth, the last of his quarters was used to make his last call before two detectives, Schmidt and Grubb, came up to him. These two detectives then took him to the police station and a clever move by them was to turn on a tape recorder; Kemper then talked for a lengthy period of 6 hours without stopping.

The transcript is quite remarkable–

EM: Truly astounding.

WH: Absolutely incredible. Kemper was a man with a remarkable sensitivity. His hands were particularly noteworthy, they were like those of a violinist. His physical features were something of a contrast to his inner being, it was as if he had an elephant’s body but a soul of Mozart.

EM: Yeah, that was Werner’s description of him in that moment. Comparing him to an elephant with the soul of Mozart. I’m sure the prison staff would have described him differently, but at the time I was really struck by Werner’s comparison. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. It was like God had deliberately misaligned the pieces to create a horrific, terrible situation. It made me think, if Othello had been in Hamlet’s place, and the other way around, there would have been no tragedy.

I have a jumble of memories from my grad school days, specifically those concerning my acquaintance with Werner. I was unenthused about my classes at the University of California, Berkeley when I first encountered him. Not long after he had completed Aguirre, his movies were being screened in the US for the first time. It was remarkable to watch Werner’s output; it was unlike anything else available in America at that time, and nothing has quite compared since then.

I was captivated by Werner’s movies and I still contemplate the same concepts now that we are discussing them. I am referring to our attempts to comprehend what another individual is pondering. What is the outlook of the other person? How do they perceive the world? Kemper was a great example. Every day, I would travel from Berkeley to Santa Cruz to attend the Kemper trial. I became a regular at the trial, and it completely altered my thoughts on numerous topics.

Back then, proceedings for homicide cases were divided into two components. The first was to determine the culpability of the accused, and the second was to decide the punishment.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Joel Fort, presented the opinion that Kemper was not actually neurotic. He had killed a dozen people, including his grandparents, then released under California law at eighteen and went on to murder eight more. In his own words, he would pick up women hitchhiking, kill them with a knife and while doing so, apologize for any discomfort he was causing, saying things like, “I hope this isn’t really unpleasant. I hope you’re not uncomfortable. I hope this is not too frightening.”

The psychiatrist took the stand and stated that the man was not neurotic, not even psychotic, as he was unable to empathize with the victim, implying a sociopathy or psychopathy. This prompted me to ponder how the psychiatrist knew Ed’s thinking, as his writing may have been a way to portray himself as being dispassionate. It made me question if he was actually in control, or deeply psychotic. This led to the realization that there can be a contrast between the way we describe ourselves and the world.

I find that this sentiment, although expressed differently, is very much present in your movies too and has been a great source of inspiration for me.


The WH and I had a disagreement about Ed Gein, but it happened sometime after the fact. There was definitely something special about Kemper, and Ed Gein, too.

It is surprising that cannibals may be capable of transforming those close to them into adversaries.

The WH noted that there was a deep concern related to cinema, since they were more dedicated to writing. The two had a very intense rapport about it; however, Errol had a problem with them when they searched for Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin, who is arguably the most infamous.

EM: The cinematic classic Psycho drew its inspiration from Ed Gein, who was notoriously infamous. Robert Bloch, the writer of the novel Psycho, was a resident of Weyauwega, a small Wisconsin town located just twenty miles from Plainfield. Gein’s farmhouse residence was transformed into a veritable house of horrors due to his proclivity for human taxidermy, cannibalism, serial murder, grave robbery, and necrophilia. All in all, he was an all-around “good guy.”

Errol was interested in the grave robberies committed by Ed Gein. He had not only killed people, but also dug up freshly buried corpses from the cemetery. Gein had dug up graves in the shape of a perfect circle, with his mother’s grave situated in the middle. This made Errol question if he had taken his mother’s body and used it for some sculptures in his home.

A query that did not provoke much reaction [Humor] was posed.

In order to answer the question, I suggested that we should make a trip to Plainfield and procure a shovel, then dig at night. So, I drove down from Alaska, where I was shooting a movie, to Plainfield, to meet Errol…

At the time I had become quite close with the people who lived next door to Ed Gein, Beth and Carroll Gear.

WH: Your absence was noted.

EM recollected that this all happened much later in time. The timeline of the events was coming back to them.

WH: We had agreed on a meeting for September 10, and I kept my promise to be present. However, you were nowhere to be seen.

EM conceded that he was, unfortunately, accurate.

Even without Errol present, I was ready to dig. I was a bit frightened, considering that in this city gunshots are a common occurrence.

Wait just a minute, I had been inhabiting the area. I was close with a peculiar doctor, Dr. George Arndt, who had only ever written one scientific paper named “A Community’s Reaction to a Horrifying Event”. It was basically a compilation of Ed Gein jokes. I became pals with Dr. Arndt and we took a ride to Plainfield Cemetery in his huge Cadillac.

It brings that scene in your Antarctic movie to mind. Dr. Arndt and I had pressed our ears to the ground around the Gein graves to detect any cavities in the earth.

I had completely overlooked it. Consequently, after a span of thirty-five years, things resurfaced.

EM asked Dr. Arndt, who was known to be eccentric, if they could hear one of the Ed Gein jokes. Did they remember any of them?

WH: It’s not likely.

What was the reason Ed Gein shrouded his chairs in the evening?

I’m not sure.

EM: In order to keep them from having goose bumps, I was with Dr. Arndt in the cemetery. Arndt theorized that since Ed was so devious, he wouldn’t have gone straight to his mother’s grave. We discovered that the graves that he had robbed formed a circle around his mom’s grave. Upon hearing this, Arndt suggested that Gein had gone in one of the side graves, as they were all filled with women who were similar to his mother in age and size. He believed that he had dug a tunnel from the grave to his mother’s in the center.

Arndt proposed that Ed Gein would never have had the courage to enter his mother’s grave. Psychiatrists have fascinating ideas. Thus, he wouldn’t go into the grave. According to Arndt, Gein was too circuitous, too cunning. And I thought, Hm–is she really in there?

I was never able to figure out if Mrs. Gein was still interred in Plainfield Cemetery. My problem was exacerbated when I shared this conundrum with Werner.

I went to Plainfield and presented myself.

EM: It suddenly became clear to me that he was really going to do it, and I was definitely scared. I had an image in my mind–I was always striving to make my mother proud, but I had already been kicked out of several grad programs. I felt like a total failure and my life was passing before my eyes. I saw myself being taken into custody by the German authorities, a full moon in the sky, the Plainfield police, and photographers capturing it all. The humiliation would have been unbearable.

Therefore, I’d like to take this chance to express my remorse. I’m sorry for my absence.

WH: I owe an apology for something else, for the car had stopped running and there wasn’t a single mechanic in the vicinity. Yet, I stumbled upon an auto wrecking yard and developed a crush on the person who repaired my car.

The individual being addressed is Clayton Schlapinski.

When I mentioned that I wanted to shoot a movie in Plainfield, it made Errol very angry. He thought I was an intruder in his area. I eventually did make Stroszek there, although it has been largely forgotten and forgiven by this point. We can be friends once more over this.

EM stated to Werner: Plagiarizing a character or tale is not true thievery, but stealing a landscape is a crime of the utmost severity.

I definitely sympathize with what you are saying, however the movie has already been released and can’t be taken back.

EM expressed approval of the movie, remarking that it was of very high quality.

I am quite fond of the way the piece concludes with a dancing chicken.

EM responded with a positive affirmation.

WH: It’s intriguing to think about what sparks the creation of movies. How ideas and concepts come back in unexpected ways. I can recall a time when I tried to determine if the ground was hollow by pounding my head against it. Interestingly enough, something similar to that appeared in a film I recently completed and showed yesterday.

The scenery is magnificent.


This apparatus is designed to facilitate interviews by allowing the interviewer and the interviewee to make eye contact with each other, despite being in separate rooms. It is essentially a two-way video system that allows a direct connection between the two parties. The interviewee is able to see the interviewer while they are speaking, and vice versa. It eliminates the need for a third-party to be present in the room, making the process more efficient and cost-effective.

EM: My experience in the past was being a private detective and then I became a filmmaker. I believe, although I could be mistaken, that my investigative nature is present in all of my work. The movies I create always originate from interviews. For instance, the movie The Thin Blue Line was born out of some peculiar and unusual interviews that were done in an investigative manner.

WH: Something that I have never come across in anyone else is what Errol has. He doesn’t handle the people he interviews in the same way that others do. Errol has an ability to look at them with a special kind of concentration and recognition, all while the camera is rolling. When this was not possible due to lack of technology, what would you call it?

The Interrotron, a device created by Errol Morris.

WH: However, having your countenance right in front of the camera lens, and the way he would gaze at–

Using the Interrotron, I recorded myself interviewing people and, upon watching the footage, I was taken aback by my facial expressions. I never included such clips in any of my films.

No matter what it is, it’s a conversation starter; people will express their thoughts and ideas that they would never say to anyone in the room. They may not even tell me, but Errol’s face can provoke such dialogue.

EM stated that Werner going to Antarctica with a limited amount of resources and no opportunity for preparation turned the venture into a documentary. There is a powerful presence of impromptu, unscripted, and unanticipated elements in every film he creates, which is what makes them unique.

Yes, reality is what kicks in at this point.

EM claims that a big part of her job is planned out and that the element of spontaneity comes from not knowing what someone is going to tell her in front of the camera. She enjoys the unexpectedness that this brings and has established a rule that if she just listens, within three minutes the person being interviewed will reveal their true self. This has happened countless times.

Once WH’s interview with Errol concluded, Errol was still expecting something. Out of the blue, WH was able to capture the best thought of all – an afterthought.

EM: Yes, frequently.

Wait for the afterthought, I’ve picked up this lesson from WH. Don’t rush it and tell them to ‘cut!’ In Encounters at the End of the World, there’s a scene with a person who is uncertain of what to do next–

It is a truly excellent occasion.

WH: He had strange-looking hands, and he kept standing there. I didn’t answer him, and he wanted to know if he should keep working and stay there. Somehow…

The significance of that moment is that it’s unexpected. You can tell by viewing it that it is not something that was pre-arranged. It originates from the feeling of being unsure of what to say, do, or what will come next.

You excel in dealing with the unanticipated, the unforeseen, and the not-initially-considered.

EM claims that a perfect balance between planned and unplanned elements is what makes photography and filmmaking interesting. Despite humans’ attempts to have control, the world is much more powerful and unpredictable than them. They must accept this fact, he surmises, for cinema to exist.

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