Werner Herzog 'Invented Cinema' and 12 Other Things We Learned from His Reddit AMA
Only Werner Herzog's Reddit AMA would cover everything from the merits of economical filmmaking to hypnotizing chickens.
Yesterday, we premiered an exclusive clip from Werner Herzog's MasterClass in which he proclaimed that "it doesn't matter if your actor spent time in jail." After, he took to Reddit to conduct an AMA for the ages. Here's what we learned.
1. He's a cinematic autodidact
When asked who taught him everything he knows about film, Herzog replied, "I did not learn anything! Nobody taught me anything! I'm self-taught." Because he taught himself about movies, Herzog has never felt beholden to convention. "I always had the feeling I was sort of the inventor of cinema itself," he wrote. "It sounds kind of crazy or not right, as if I was not right in my mind. But I couldn't care less about the rules of anything since I developed it all on my own."
"I always had the feeling I was sort of the inventor of cinema itself."
In keeping with his rebellious spirit, Herzog is loath to admit to any cinematic influences—though he will cop to being "encouraged" by a whole host of auteurs: "Luis Buñuel, or somebody like Kurosawa, or somebody like Dreyer, a Danish filmmaker who made the incredible silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, or Elia Kazan, films like Viva Zapata!, which is a phenomenal film, and some other stuff."
2. He didn't know movies existed until he was 11
Growing up in the remote mountains of Bavaria, Herzog discovered movies at age 11, when a traveling projectionist visited his schoolhouse. But it didn't take long to catch the fever. "I made my first film when I was 19," he wrote. "By the way, I made my first phone call when I was 17. Nobody can believe it nowadays."
3. He doesn't recognize his own voice (amidst the chaos of the universe, if you will)
Barring Morgan Freeman, Herzog may be the most iconic narrator of all time. In what can only be described as an "existential" German accent, Herzog's voice—with its insistence on slow and steady pronunciation that echoes deep into the chambers of the world's caves—is sui generis.
The problem is, he can't even hear himself speak. "I must say, I don't recognize my voice," Herzog wrote. His cinematic style, however, is instantly recognizable, even by his own standards. "My type of film projects have never changed," he wrote. "A certain combative attitude helped. When you see my most recent films, you would instantly see that it's a film by Werner Herzog. You could tell. But I have not trodden the same path all through my life. And yet, there's something very coherent in my filmmaking."
"I love all of them, my 72 or so films."
4. He knows "by face" who can milk a cow
Herzog is no stranger to understanding what he terms "the heart of men." Once, at NASA headquarters, Herzog spoke to five astronauts fresh off a space shuttle mission. "I wanted to persuade them to be extras in the film in a very strange way," Herzog recounted. "They were sitting in a semi-circle when I was taken in, and my heart sank. I didn't know [what to say]. I looked around and looked into their faces and all of a sudden I had the feeling: I understand these people. I understand the heart of these men and these women. I know, by looking at faces, who is able to milk a cow. I looked at the pilot and said 'You, sir!' and he burst out in smiles and says, 'Yes, I can milk a cow.'"
5. He thinks the world reveals itself to travelers
So, how did Herzog discover this elusive "heart of man"? He traveled the world. "You cannot learn it; the world has to teach you," he wrote. "The world does it in its most intense and deepest way when you when you encounter it by traveling on foot. The world reveals itself to one who travels on foot." But before you embark on a Herzog quest of your own, there's one caveat: "I'd like to add that when I travel by foot, I don't do it as a backpacker where you take all your household items with you—your tent, your sleeping bag, your cooking utensils," Herzog wrote. "I travel without any luggage."
6. He thinks reading is of the utmost importance
More than anything—even movies—Herzog espouses reading, which he believes shapes every person's perspective on life. "Read read read read read!" he wrote. "And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that's how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. Reading is some kind of essential prerequisite to everything you do."
"Don't look for the state-of-the-art most expensive cameras."
But he cautions against too much "social media reading," which he equates to entering "a pseudo-life, a synthetic life out there in cyberspace." He added: "It's good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely."
7. Nosferatu the Vampyre is really about the Holocaust
When asked about his inspiration for Nosferatu the Vampyre, Herzog went in an unexpected direction. "Now, for me, as a young German filmmaker, I was raised in a generation after the Second World War," he wrote. "We had no father figures. Our cinema fathers and our real fathers were all caught in the barbarism of the Nazi regime, and the best ones either were murdered or they were exiled, and [F. W.] Murnau was one of those. And I had the feeling, since we had no fathers and since we were orphans, I was an orphan in the flow of cultural history in Germany...I wanted to connect to the generation of the grandfathers. And for me having connected with the film, Nosferatu, I had the feeling all of the sudden that I had solid ground under my feet."
Below Herzog's answer, a Redditor commented, "That's pretty f*cking heavy, bro," to which another replied, "It's Werner Herzog...What were you expecting?"
8. He loves Kiarostami
Another filmmaker to add to the list of "Herzog Encouragers" is the late Abbas Kiarostami. "One of the all-time most wonderful filmmakers just died a few days ago," Herzog wrote. "If you ever have a chance to see at least two of his films, one of them is called Where Is the Friend's Home? and the other one is called Close-Up. If you can ever get ahold of these films, and you will find them easily on the internet, you will be awestruck and rewarded."
And don't forget Joshua Oppenheimer. "He would be pretty much on top of the list," Herzog wrote. "You have to seeThe Act of Killing, and his next film, The Look of Silence. When you have a look at The Act of Killing, I do not remember that in the decade, or in two decades, I have seen a film of that caliber and that power."
"I like cats because they're so strange sometimes."
9. He's proud of all his movies—even the ones that limp
Every one of his movies occupies an equally special place in Herzog's heart. "You cannot really ask a mother, 'Which one of your children are you most proud of?,'" he wrote. "You love them all. I love all of them, my 72 or so films. And those who are the weakest—some of them are weak and some of them have defects, where they limp—I defend them more than the others. So, I'm proud of them all."
10. He doesn't care about fancy cameras
Speaking about economy and resourcefulness in filmmaking, Herzog mentioned French filmmaker Jean Roach's The Mad Masters. "It's a completely exploratory film," he wrote. "Rouch only had a so-called "bouilloire" camera, didn't have a battery, had to wind it up, hand crank it. Maximum length of a shot would be something like 25 seconds and only one single lens, and he made one of the best films ever made. I say this as an encouragement to young filmmakers. Don't look for the state-of-the-art most expensive cameras. You should be capable today with fairly simple equipment of high caliber. You can edit on your own laptop, and you can make a film yourself for, let's say, even a feature film under $10,000. Learn from the documentary film school."
11. He stumbles into stories
"I do not follow ideas; I stumble into stories, or I stumble into people who all of the sudden, the situation makes it clear that this is so big, I have to make a film," Herzog wrote. "Very often, films come with uninvited guests—I keep saying like burglars in the middle of the night. They're in your kitchen, something is stirring, you wake up at 3 AM and all of the sudden they come wildly swinging at you."
Once you have an idea, Herzog advised, keep it in the back of your mind. "Keep connecting little bits and pieces that belong to it. Keep it all the time alive somehow. Sometimes it's only a word, sometimes half a line of dialogue, sometimes an image that you squiggle [sic] down. And when it materializes, then press yourself with urgency."
12. He hypnotizes chickens and loves crazy cat videos
"I like cats because they're so strange sometimes," Herzog admitted. "And you see them on the internet, the crazy cat videos for example, and I'm a fan of them."
But whatever you do, don't get him started about chickens. "I like animals, but when it comes to chickens, they are so stupid," he wrote. "And it's easy to hypnotize them. Put their beak on the ground, hold them, and draw a quick, straight line away from their beak onto the ground, onto the pavement, and they'll stay there frozen and hypnotized!"
"Unfortunately, this is not in my Masterclass," Herzog continued. "I think there are certain things you cannot learn in my Masterclass."