An Interview with Werner Herzog

Things Werner Herzog and Errol Morris have done together:
Visited serial killer Ed Kemper in prison
Visited Plainfield, Wisconsin, to investigate the murderer Ed Gein
Dug up Ed Gein’s mother’s grave to see if she was still there (almost)

An Interview with Werner Herzog

Things Werner Herzog and Errol Morris have done together:
Visited serial killer Ed Kemper in prison
Visited Plainfield, Wisconsin, to investigate the murderer Ed Gein
Dug up Ed Gein’s mother’s grave to see if she was still there (almost)

An Interview with Werner Herzog

Errol Morris
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Werner Herzog (real name: Werner H. Stipetic) was born in Munich on September 5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child. He started traveling on foot from the age of fourteen. He made his first phone call at the age of seventeen. During high school he worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films, and made his first film in 1961 at the age of nineteen. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than forty films, published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas.

Since the premiere of Errol Morris’s groundbreaking 1978 film, Gates of Heaven, Morris has indelibly altered our perception of the nonfiction film, presenting to audiences the mundane, bizarre, and historic with his own distinctive élan. His films include 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). Standard Operating Procedure (2008) is Morris’s eighth feature-length documentary film. His preceding film, The Fog of War, received the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In addition to his current feature documentary, Errol Morris has coauthored, with Philip Gourevitch, a book on Abu Ghraib, also titled Standard Operating Procedure. Penguin Press will publish that book in April 2008.

This conversation took place at Brandeis University in the fall of 2007, and was moderated by Alice Arshalooys Kelikian.


WERNER HERZOG: Walking out of one of your films, I always had the feeling—the sense that I’ve seen a movie, that I’ve seen something equivalent to a feature film. That’s very much the feeling of the feature film Vernon, Florida or even the film with McNamara—The Fog of War. Even there I have the feeling I’ve seen a feature, a narrative feature film with an inventive narrative structure and with a sort of ambience created that you only normally create in a feature film, in an inventive, fictionalized film.

The new film that I saw, Standard Operating Procedure, feels as if you had completely invented characters, and yet they are not. We know the photos, and we know the events and we know the dramas behind it. And yet I always walk out feeling that I have seen a feature film, a fiction film.

ERROL MORRIS: Yeah. The intention is to put the audience in some kind of odd reality. [To moderator] Werner certainly shares this. It’s the perverse element in filmmaking. Werner in his “Minnesota Manifesto” starts talking about ecstatic truth. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

But what I do understand in his films is a kind of ecstatic absurdity, things that make you question the nature of reality, of the universe in which we live. We think we understand the world around us. We look at a Herzog film, and we think twice. And I always, always have revered that element. Ecstatic absurdity: it’s the confrontation with meaninglessness.

I was talking with Ron Rosenbaum, a friend of mine, who had just finished a book on Shakespeare. We were talking about the meaning of meaninglessness. Is there such a thing? And I would say: yes. Werner’s work could be considered an extended essay on the meaning of meaninglessness.

WH: Thank you, yes. It feels good to hear that. [Laughter]

But, of course, I’m suspicious about the sources. Where does this come from, this textualizing of Shakespeare and poetry? And I think a part of the cinema verité, we have discarded it. Yes, that’s enough. We have hit enough at it, and it’s actually cinema verité, the answer of the ’60s, and that’s OK. Yes, we have buried it for good, I hope.

But now what is emerging, and we should really go and lower our heads in charge against this kind of structure and this postmodernist, poststructuralist sort of film studies in aesthetics. You find it as an all-pervading abomination speaking about literature, speaking about cinema. And I think there’s a new enemy out there that we should really start to tackle more violently and more viciously. I mean with sucker punches wherever we can do it.

EM: I think it’s the same—

WH: Do you think it’s insignificant?

EM: I think it’s the same old enemy, really. It’s ourselves. I’m very fond of telling people when they say that they would like regime change, for example, in Washington, that what we really need is species change. That the species itself is so impossible and so deeply degraded that one could well do with something else for a change.

But I don’t think the problem is with verité, per se. There have always been oddball claims about truth-telling in cinema. I should point out that Grizzly Man, a film that I really, really, really like, is partially based on verité footage.

WH: I would contest that, because when you look at it—yes, it’s found footage, but I think [Grizzly Man subject Timothy] Treadwell always wanted to be the movie star in his own movie. And you even see how he stages himself, how he directs himself, how he repeats one take after the other.

EM: That is true.

WH: I mean, sometimes we know he’s done at least fifteen takes because he would also preselect—he didn’t want to show some of the takes. What survives in this footage is take two, take three, and take number fourteen. So we know he has shot at least fourteen takes and erased only twelve or eleven of them. This is kind of remarkable because it’s highly, highly, highly organized, and he was a movie fan. He was a great fan of science fiction, for example, a great fan of Starsky & Hutch, a great fan of the series Cheers, where he competed for the role of the bartender and didn’t get the part. And he somehow created his part in the movie.

So I would be cautious about verité. Verité comes in at certain moments when he is in the Starsky & Hutch mode and he’s wearing his bandanna, the sexy camouflage bandanna. And he jumps away on the little path and disappears. And he disappears for twelve seconds, which is a long time in the film and footage. Disappears for twelve seconds and reappears. But what is in between—all of a sudden you see reed grass, long stems, and… wind bending the grass.

EM: That’s an amazing sequence.

WH: Yes, and everybody overlooked it, and I had the feeling that this is verité. That’s a verité element. Yes, there is cinema verité in it, and I declared my brand here. You have your own way of approaching it. And we’ll never grasp it anyway. Speaking of truth, we have to touch it with a pair of pliers, anyway, because we’ll never even get anywhere close.

EM: And we probably wouldn’t even know it if we saw it.

WH: But trying and attempting it anyway, and through illumination of trying to postulate an ecstasy of truth, well, that’s maybe an odd access to it. Still, I’m trying it.

EM: Yes. Werner, I take back the remark about verité. Sort of. I’ve been in the process of making a movie about the photographs at Abu Ghraib. And what is so very odd about the photographs—and this is also true of Treadwell, I believe—they involve posing. Treadwell is often presenting himself to the camera quite consciously. He is performing for the camera. But at the same time that performance is part of what is being captured. It’s part of a verité moment. That’s why I object to this idea of something that’s posed not being real, the posing can be part of the reality of what you’re looking at.

What’s so interesting about the Abu Ghraib photographs is that many of those scenes were orchestrated for the camera. They were posed. And the fact of them being posed doesn’t make them less real. In fact, it makes them more horrific and more deeply disturbing.

WH: Yes, some of it not even posed, but one of the women in [Standard Operating Procedure], you ask about her thumb because she always—it’s not the main one, Lynndie England, but the other one. I forgot her name.

EM: Sabrina Harman.

WH: And she says, “Whenever I enter a picture frame, I don’t know really what to do with my thumb and I do this here.” So it’s accepting of a pose, the moment you are going in to frame. And I like that moment.

EM: I keep thinking about what makes Grizzly Man very modern—a strange hall of mirrors. Treadwell, like yourself, is a filmmaker. He is trying to capture his version of reality as a set of images. Yeah, maybe that’s the human enterprise.

WH: In Abu Ghraib, at least some of the photos are purely staged. But some of them are not. When they take the photos, let’s say from the second floor, and you see the soldiers and you see the prisoners somewhat down in the corridor. In many of these occasions I’m fairly convinced that nobody down there was aware that there was somebody taking photos. Or do I say that wrongly?

EM: No, no, no, not at all.

WH: But, of course, some of them are real and they are staged—let’s say, the infamous pyramid, the human pyramid. In my opinion, it’s a great exercise in stage art—a very vile, inhuman stage art.

EM: Yes.

WH: It’s like a modern form of drama, of theater, the theater of bodies to tie them up into a human pyramid of taking the last remaining dignity from them. And in this kind of staging, it’s not a random tossing of bodies on top of each other. The staging of it makes it so horrifying.

EM: Yes. Treadwell seems to be interested in creating a theater with bear actors. And he sees himself as one of them. [Laughter]

More than a wildlife film, it seems that you’re watching someone—I guess when I say that it’s the human condition, I think that we all take the images of our life and we try to make sense of them. We try to order them in a way that’s congenial or acceptable, even flattering. And Treadwell was involved in this very enterprise, but in a rather bizarre setting. He eliminated almost all people except for his girlfriend, who really doesn’t appear, and populated his theater with bears. He was, I suppose, trying to become the greatest bear director of all time, but it backfired. Or maybe it didn’t.

WH: It’s very complicated. Quite often I’m asked to describe him or categorize him, which you can’t do anyway. But to describe him—I’ve tried it a few times, and it gets more and more complicated—yes, that’s certainly one of those things, to become a bear and be the great bear actor. And he actually is on all fours and huffs at a bear, and he somehow leaves the boundaries of his attempts to become the bartender in Cheers. He leaves it way behind, and he is aspiring to something much deeper.


EM: When Werner and I first met each other, we took a trip to visit this serial killer [Edmund Emil Kemper III] in prison in Northern California.

WH: Vacaville, yeah.

EM: There were three of us. And Kemper’s lawyer. To circumvent a lot of red tape, the lawyer identified us as psychiatrists. Werner’s producer, Walter Saxer, came along with us. So there was Dr. Saxer, Dr. Morris, and Dr. Herzog allowed in because—

WH: We were scared shitless because Kemper was a very huge man, fairly young, I think still twenty-six by then. But something like six foot five or six foot four.

EM: I think bigger.

WH: Maybe bigger, yes.

EM: Very large.

WH: Capital punishment was suspended at the time he was condemned. And he chose seven or eight consecutive life terms, but he wanted to die in the gas chamber. And the only way to get to the gas chamber when it was reinstated at that time was to kill someone inside the prison. So the attorney was really scared. And he was in a way relieved that he had some solid men as his guards or his company. And reading all the transcripts of Kemper, I had the feeling that what was interesting was that the man, in my opinion—and I’m speaking of Edmund Emil Kemper—he made a lot of sense. In a way he makes a lot of sense, why he killed and how it all originated.

And at the end, after having killed seven or eight or so coeds, hitchhikers, he killed his mother and put the severed head on the mantel and threw darts at it. And then there happened to be some leftover turkey in the fridge from Thanksgiving. And he called the lady next door, the neighbor, and asked—am I correct? Yeah, asked her if she would like to pick up the turkey leftovers, and she walks in and then he killed her as well, and put her in a closet. And then he fled in his mother’s car and crisscrossed the West until he ran out of money and ran out of gas. And in Pueblo, Colorado, he kept calling the police. [To Morris] You know better what happened there. I think they thought he was kind of gaga and didn’t believe him.

EM: He desperately tried to turn himself in to the police by making repeated phone calls from this phone booth. Now he would have had a cell phone. So I guess it’s easier now for serial killers to turn themselves in. And the police kept hanging up on him. They just—

WH: And he was down to his last quarter to make his last call, and then two detectives actually picked him up at this phone booth. I remember their names because they sound very German: Schmidt and Grubb. And Schmidt and Grubb took him to the police station, and what was smart of them was, they just randomly turned on a tape recorder and Kemper spoke for six hours, pretty much nonstop.

And this transcript is really wonderful—

EM: Quite amazing, yes.

WH: Very, very amazing. And Kemper was, in a way, a very sensitive person. When you looked at his hands, like the hands of a violin player, in a way. I remember he looked like an elephant with a Mozart soul.

EM: Yeah. That’s the way Werner described him at the time. An elephant with the soul of Mozart. I’m not sure that most of the prison authorities would have described him in the same way, but at the time I found Werner’s description very interesting. I thought for a long time about it. It made it situational, as if God in his infinite perversity had somehow mismatched Kemper’s various attributes in order to produce some kind of nightmare, some kind of tragedy. I remember thinking, Yeah, if Othello had been in Hamlet’s place, and vice versa, there would be no tragedy.

It’s so mixed up in my mind—Werner in these early years, graduate school, and what I myself was thinking. I was a very disaffected graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s where I first met Werner. It was just shortly after he finished Aguirre and his films were being shown in the United States for the first time. It was an amazing experience to see Werner’s work. There was really nothing quite like it in America at that time, and probably not since that time.

And I became really fascinated by Werner’s films. I’m thinking about it even now, now that we’re talking about it, our attempts to understand what people are thinking. What is going on in another person’s mind? How do they see the world? Kemper was a perfect example. I would drive every day from Berkeley to Santa Cruz and I would attend the Kemper trial. I became a regular fixture. And I would say the trial transformed my thinking about many, many, many things.

In those days, murder trials were chopped into two pieces. There would be a guilt and innocence phase and a penalty phase.

And there was this wacko psychiatrist, Dr. Joel Fort, who took the stand and said that Kemper was not even neurotic. Kemper had killed a dozen people. He had killed his grandparents. He had been put away in a juvenile facility, released under California law when he reached eighteen, and then went on to kill eight more people. And Kemper had described how these murders occurred. He would pick up women hitchhiking. He would be killing a woman with a knife and talking to her, saying, “I hope this isn’t really unpleasant. I hope you’re not uncomfortable. I hope this is not too frightening.”

So, the psychiatrist—I’ll make this as short as possible—the psychiatrist took the stand and said, “You know, this man is not even neurotic. Not only is he not psychotic, he’s not even neurotic, because he can’t empathize with the victim. He has a sociopathy or a psychopathy. He can be completely dispassionate while he is killing another person.” And I started to wonder—I still wonder about this stuff—I started to wonder how in god’s name does the psychiatrist know what Ed is thinking? Maybe Ed has this fantasy of being in control. Maybe in this writing after the fact he imagined himself as being dispassionate. Perhaps he was completely out of control, deeply psychotic. This kind of discrepancy between the accounts that we provide about ourselves and the world.

And I think it’s very much—in a different way—but it’s very much in your films as well, and something that deeply inspired me.


WH: There is something about Kemper and, of course, Ed Gein as well—we had a falling out over Ed Gein at the time, sometime later.

EM: Cannibals can turn friends into enemies. Go figure.

WH: But actually, yes, it was a deep concern and in a way it had to do with cinema, for you at that time were more into the direction of writing. But we had a very, very intense rapport over it. Errol had a problem with me when we tried to find out in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where Ed Gein—the very probably most notorious—

EM: The movie Psycho was based on Ed Gein. Robert Bloch, the writer of the novel Psycho, lived in a small Wisconsin town, Weyauwega, about twenty miles from Plainfield. Ed Gein was notorious. And the farmhouse where he lived alone became the ultimate house of horrors. He had upholstered furniture in his house with human flesh. He was a human taxidermist, cannibal, serial killer, grave robber, necrophile. An all-around good guy.

WH: Errol wanted to know more about the grave robberies, because Ed Gein had not only murdered people. He also excavated freshly buried corpses at the cemetery. And I do remember: he dug up graves in a pretty perfect circle. And in the very center of this circle was the grave of his mother. And Errol kept wondering, did he excavate his mother and use her flesh and skin for some sculptures in things at his home?

EM: A relatively innocuous question. [Laughter]

WH: So the only way to find out is, I proposed, let’s go to Plainfield, grab a shovel, and dig at night. And I showed up in Plainfield, Wisconsin, because I was doing some filming up in Alaska and I came in a car all the way from Alaska down to Plainfield to visit Errol—

EM: I was living with Ed Gein’s next-door neighbors at the time, who I had befriended. Beth and Carroll Gear.

WH: You didn’t show up.

EM: Oh, much later, yes. The chronology of all this is coming back to me.

WH: I was there, but you didn’t show up. And we had a date. It was something like September 10, and I said, I’m going to be there, and you will be there, and you didn’t show up.

EM: He’s unfortunately correct.

WH: And I would have dug, even though Errol wasn’t there. I was kind of scared because people open fire easily in this town.

EM: Well, wait a second. I had been living there. I had become friends with this very strange doctor, Dr. George Arndt. He had written one academic paper in his entire medical career, called “A Community’s Reaction to a Horrifying Event.” Essentially it was a compendium of Ed Gein jokes. I had befriended Dr. Arndt and together we drove to Plainfield Cemetery. He had a very, very big Cadillac.

It reminds me actually of that scene in your Antarctic movie. Dr. Arndt and I had put our ears to the ground in the vicinity of the Gein graves, looking for hollow areas in the earth.

WH: I had forgotten about it completely. So things come back thirty-five years later.

EM: And Dr. Arndt, who was really quite mad—I should tell you at least one of the Ed Gein jokes. Do you remember any of them?

WH: I don’t think so.

EM: Why did Ed Gein keep his chairs covered overnight?

WH: I don’t know.

EM: To keep them from getting goose pimples. So I was there with George Arndt in the cemetery and Arndt had this theory that Ed was so devious that he wouldn’t have gone down directly into his mother’s grave. I had discovered that many of the graves that he had robbed made a circle around his mother’s grave. And Dr. Arndt took this new information and came up with the hypothesis that Gein went down into one of the side graves—he only robbed the graves of women who were middle-aged and overweight, like his mom. He went into one of those graves and then tunneled, that there would be this radial tunnel toward the center, toward his mother’s grave.

Arndt’s theory was that Gein would never have gone directly down into his mother’s grave. Psychiatrists have amazing theories. But he would never go down into the grave. As Arndt put it: Gein was too indirect, too devious. Hence, his radial digging, this tunneling. And I wondered, Wait a second—is she really down there?

I could never get an answer. I could never get a straight answer from anyone. Is Mrs. Gein still buried in Plainfield Cemetery? And I told the story—this was the big mistake here—I told the story to Werner.

WH: And I showed up in Plainfield.

EM: And so there was this horrible realization: he’s actually going to do it. And I have to say, I did get scared. I had this picture—you know, I was always really—I probably still am—trying to please my mother. I had already been thrown out of these various graduate schools. I was a ne’er-do-well, and down for the count, and I saw my life flashing before my eyes. I saw myself arrested with the Germans. I saw this full moon. I saw the Plainfield police. I saw the police photographers. I saw myself being led away with the Germans in handcuffs, the complete disgrace.

So this is an opportunity to apologize. I apologize for not showing up.

WH: I have to apologize for something else, because my car had broken down and there was no mechanic in the mile out there. There was a wreckage yard, and I fell in love with the guy who fixed my car.

EM: Clayton Schlapinski.

WH: Yes, Clayton Schlapinski. And I said that we were going to do a film there in Plainfield, and that really upset Errol a lot. He thought I was a thief without loot. This was his country, his territory, his Plainfield, and I shot in Plainfield. I shot a film, Stroszek, which I think is forgotten and forgiven by now, and we can maintain friendship over this now.

EM: I told Werner: For you to steal a character or a story isn’t real theft. But to steal a landscape, that is a very, very serious crime.

WH: I understand that. I take it to heart, but there actually is a film out there, and we can’t take it off the map.

EM: It’s a very good film.

WH: It has a beautiful end with a dancing chicken, and I really like it.

EM: Yes.

WH: But what might be interesting is what somehow creates movies. What sort of odd fascinations, and they return in a very different form somewhere. And even I forgot about putting the head to the ground and banging the ground and listening whether there was anything hollow. And all of a sudden in the film that I just finished and showed yesterday, something similar like that in staged form appears.

EM: And it’s a wonderful scene.


EM: I come out of a background—I was a private detective for years after I started as a filmmaker. I like to think, of course I could be completely wrong, that there’s this detective element in everything I do. My movies start from interviews. Everything that I’ve really done—The Thin Blue Line started from bizarre, odd interviews. But interviews that are investigative—

WH: I want to add one thing: Errol has something that I don’t have and I’ve never seen anyone who has it like him. You do not direct the ones that you interview. Errol has a way to look at them with such an intensity of curiosity and acknowledgment, just to see your face, how you are next to the camera. At that time, you didn’t have this device. What do you call it?

EM: The Interrotron.

WH: But having your face next to the camera, and the way he would look at—

EM: Because of the Interrotron, I have this footage of myself—I never put it in my movies—of what I look like, my facial expressions, while interviewing people. And I found it appalling.

WH: Whatever it is, it makes people talk, and they say things that they would never say to any one of you here in the audience. They wouldn’t say it to me either, but Errol makes it by dint of his face.

EM: It becomes a documentary, whatever that is, by the element of the unpredictable. Now Werner goes to Antarctica. He has a limited amount of time and a limited amount of materials. He has no way of doing any kind of prep. And so the movie emerges. It’s emergent, if you like, from just what happens there. I feel that the element of spontaneity—and there’s a strong element of spontaneity, of the uncontrolled, of the unrehearsed, the unplanned, in every single film he’s made.

WH: Yeah, that’s where real life enters.

EM: I feel that element of spontaneity because so much of what I do is controlled. The element of spontaneity is not knowing what someone is going to say to me in front of the camera, having really no idea, of being surprised. I know that there’s this moment in all of the interviews that I’ve loved where something happens. I had this three-minute rule that if you just shut up and let someone talk, within three minutes they will show you how crazy they really are. And it has happened time and time and time again.

WH: And you have a great sense for the afterthought. The interview is finished, it’s over, and Errol is still sitting and expecting something. Then all of a sudden there comes an afterthought, and that’s the best of all.

EM: Yes, often.

WH: Very often, yes. And I have learned that, in a way, from you. Wait for the afterthought. Be patient. Don’t say, “Cut.” Just let them do it. And in the Antarctic film [Encounters at the End of the World] you have the man who is all of a sudden not knowing what to do—

EM: It’s a very, very good moment.

WH: Because he showed his hands with very odd-shaped fingers and he stands and stands. And I don’t respond to him. And he wanted to know, should he continue to work, and stands, and then somehow—

EM: Now, why is that moment powerful? It’s powerful because you can tell by looking at it it’s unplanned. It comes from this moment of being deeply uncertain what to do, what to say, what will happen next.

WH: The unplanned, the unexpected, the afterthought—you are the master of that.

EM: If everything was planned, it would be dreadful. If everything was unplanned, it would be equally dreadful. Cinema exists because there are elements of both in everything. There are elements of both in documentary. There are elements of both in feature filmmaking. It’s what makes, I think, photography and filmmaking of interest. Despite all of our efforts to control something, the world is much, much more powerful than us, and more deranged even than us.

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