The Cosmic, Outrageous, Ecstatic Truths of Werner Herzog

He grew up in rural Bavaria, and then in Munich. Before making his early films, he tells us, he worked as a minder of cows, a laborer, a spot welder, a larcenous parking warden, a rodeo clown and a smuggler of stereos and then guns into Mexico. Of what it’s like to have been internationally famous for more than 50 years, and to have spent a great deal of time on daises at film festivals and in penthouse suites, there is vastly less documentation. The wise reader, still hunkered, will at this point reach for a helmet, and check for his or her wallet.

In nearly all these occupations, Herzog was banged up. He is, for sure, the world’s most grandiloquent crash-test dummy. He’s fallen off a barn and broken both arms. He’s had 14 stitches in his chin, a soccer injury, and a tooth pulled after declining anesthesia because the pain was synonymous with “the way I expected the world to be.” His collarbone was detached from his breastbone while ski jumping. He has been lifted off his feet by random explosions. He fell 40 feet on an opera stage and sprained his neck. He was hit so hard by a stuntman while filming a scene for a movie that two crowns popped loose from his molars. He has intentionally leaped into a cactus field and has eaten his shoe (which he cooked at Chez Panisse). He missed an airplane that crashed, and came close to being beheaded in Peru by the Shining Path. He was shot, and “slightly wounded,” while being interviewed by the BBC in Los Angeles. A few days later, because he is Werner Herzog:

I rescued Joaquin Phoenix, who had happened to crash on the highway right in front of me, from his upside-down car. I think he was in withdrawal and presumably shouldn’t have been driving. Hanging upside down between fully inflated airbags, he refused to hand me the lighter he was trying to light his cigarette with. He didn’t notice that there was gas leaking everywhere.

On this book’s cover, in a still photo from his documentary about volcanoes, Herzog looks like Wile E. Coyote after being smashed by a boulder. No wonder that, on difficult shoots, he carries “Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible in a facsimile reprint,” so the Book of Job is nearby and he can meditate on the universality of unmerited suffering.

The bulk of “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” consists of Herzog’s thoughts on the subjects that interest him, about which he has made movies or would like to: cave paintings, hypnosis, twins, the so-called vanishing area paradox, nuclear waste, forgery, thought transference, deep space, Antarctica and mummies.

There is one intentionally funny sentence. Writing about livestock auctioneers, he says, “I always wanted to direct a ‘Hamlet’ and have all the parts played by ex-champion livestock auctioneers; I wanted the performance to come in at under 14 minutes.”

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