Weathering storms in search of cinematic truth

March 12, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

When Werner Herzog -- born Werner Stipetic on Sept. 5, 1942 -- first walked out of the remote Bavarian village where he was raised, he had never seen an orange. He had never used a telephone, or seen a movie. But just eight years later, at the age of 19, after working the night shift as a welder in a steel factory in order to raise money, he made his first film. Since then, Herzog has made more than 40 feature films and documentaries, the most recent of which documents his extraordinary collaboration with the German actor Klaus Kinski.

"My Best Fiend," which opens at the Charles Theatre on Friday, traces a relationship that started when Herzog was 13 and lived in the same apartment house as Kinski, who would launch into uncontrollable "fits," one of which lasted for a full 48 hours. Twenty years later, Kinski would star in the title role of Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," and the two would go on to make four films together, all of them fraught with passion, mutual admiration and mistrust and, finally, divine inspiration. (Kinski died in 1991.) While in Baltimore recently to rehearse the Baltimore Opera in his production of "Tannhauser," Herzog sat down for a conversation about Kinski, art, Frisbees and cattle ranching. The legendary director sipped Perrier and smoked Merit Ultra-Lights after a 15-hour journey from Cologne, Germany, where he is preparing to shoot "Invincible," his new film starring Tim Roth.

On working with the famously volatile Kinski:

I think I was fortified with enough philosophy to take [Kinski's outbursts] in the right way. You see, somebody like Kinski screaming at me and throwing tantrums and being totally irresponsible and going bonkers, that was ... a necessity of achieving a certain climate of creativity with him. As young as I was at that time [Herzog was 28 when he made "Aguirre, the Wrath of God"], even with the first film that I made with him, I always had the feeling, "Yes the storm is raging but I will make it productive for the screen."

Kinski could be the most charming, genial, magnanimous and generous person, and from one second to the next would switch over into fits of unimaginable fury. But I do believe now, in retrospect, that I was the more dangerous one. He was higher decibel, I was always very quiet, silent. But it was actually me who almost shot him on a couple of occasions. The funny thing is, and I see now the humor in it, that at the same time independently and unbeknownst of each other, we plotted to murder each other. And that was at a time when we didn't work together!

On why he has consistently made both documentaries and feature films:

The borderline for me has always been blurred. My documentaries have been highly fictitious and highly inventive and highly stylized, and many of my feature films, including, for example, "Fitzcarraldo" [Herzog's 1982 film in which his crew actually hauled a 340-ton boat over a Peruvian mountain range], sometimes I say as a joke [that] it's my best documentary.

I've been after a major question of what constitutes truth in cinema. When you read a great poem, you have an instant, nonacademic, deep sensation that there is a very deep truth in it. And you have the same thing with music as well. That's why I love to work with music. And when you look at American television, or international television, all the documentaries are very boring for me. They believe that a factual surface constitutes truth. But I think in poetry it's hidden very, very deep underneath and it's something very mysterious and elusive. There is such a thing which I call a poetic or ecstatic truth, and that's what I've been after, with feature films as well.

On how he came to live in Bavaria, and how his childhood there affected his point of view as a filmmaker:

When I was only two weeks old, a bomb hit the house next to us and ... my mother found me in the cradle with a thick layer of shards of glass and debris on the cradle. I was totally unhurt but my mother, of course, took my older brother and me to the remotest hideout in the mountains and that's where we got stuck for the first 11 years of my life.

I had to invent the world myself. I had no toys, I had to invent my toys. ... We came up with an invention one day, we carved a flat arrow, which was slightly curved, it had a little bit of an effect of a Frisbee but that was in the late 1940s, Frisbees didn't exist, and we shot the arrow not with a bow but with some sort of a whip. ... And it would sail twice, three times as far as an arrow from a very serious bow would fly. You couldn't aim with it at all, but it would sail and sail, it was just amazing.

On making films amid a waning American market for foreign-language movies:

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