10 Lessons I Learned From An Evening with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is perhaps one of the finest filmmakers of our time, diving deep into fascinating studies of humanity in both narrative and documentary form. But as much as his captivating films leave us enlightened, the 74-year old director sparks up young crowds these days by giving interviews and making appearances at college campuses and film screenings, elevating the experience with his humor and wisdom.

If you’ve seen Herzog speak in person, you know what I’m talking about— remember when his words on chickens went viral?— so it was essential see what other illuminating thoughts Werner had on his mind during his appearance at Chapman University last Thursday night. Billed as ‘An Evening With” the beloved filmmaker, Herzog spoke to a diverse crowd of college students and older fans at Chapman’s Folino Theater. While he did not regale everyone with as many film clips as anticipated, the legendary director of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Grizzly Man did expound on things he’s been fascinated by lately, including theories of cultural memory, etymology, cinema and phaistos disks, followed by a short Q&A sesh with the audience moderated by Chuck Workman. Here now are some of the biggest lessons and takeaways I learned from Herzog, including more exclusive film trivia than an IMDB page.

1. Werner Herzog is pronounced Verner Hertzog.

2. Herzog has a deep affinity for Fred Astaire, and showed the clip of Fred tap dancing in a scene from Broadway Melody of 1940*. In it, Fred is dancing with his own shadow, and all of a sudden his dancing shadow moved independently from Astaire, which Herzog felt signified a discrepancy between our human sense of cause and effect, therefore our adoption of reality has been suspended. Despite his “insipid face” as Herzog puts it, “[Fred Astaire] has given us joy and insight on a screen.”

*note: in this scene Fred Astaire is dressed in blackface, making me wish Herzog had chosen another clip for his point. ALSO, this scene in question is from the film Swing Time, not Broadway Melody of 1940.

3. The iguana scene in Bad Lieutenant was unscripted. Werner saw it in New Orleans while shooting the film and loved the “stunned, stupid, perplexed” expression on its face, so he wanted to incorporate it with Nic Cage’s ongoing drug influence. One of the iguanas also bit Werner.

4. Both Cage and Herzog consider Bad Lieutenant as Cage’s best work. Herzog recalls a time in filming when Cage called the whole crew over to declare, “Finally! A director who knows what he’s doing!” referring to Herzog.

5. Herzog is a champion for people understanding where words and traditions come from. One thing he explained was how the tradition of men carrying brides across the threshold came about: According to Herzog, women were customarily raped and kidnapped in the days of the Romans, so carrying a bride over the threshold was a way to thwart a possible kidnapping, and avoid evil spirits. Herzog explains that the tradition of throwing coins in the fountain is adapted from the old days when gods were believed to live in fountains, and throwing coins seemed to appease them.

6. Herzog is an unconventional director, by the standards of conventional filmmakers. Some proof: he chooses not to shoot coverage, only shoots with one camera at a time, and doesn’t subscribe to the school of screenwriting that mandates character development by a certain page. Nor does he think a character needs to be transformed by the end of the film. “That’s exactly what these students learn to do here,” says Workman.

7. Herzog has a deep dislike for Pablo Picasso. When asked why, Herzog responded that Picasso is over-valued, as he never had a consistent art style he stuck with his entire life. “He is a man who has no home,” Herzog says, “he works in all sort of styles and moves on to the new style when they’re trendy.”

8. When asked about what music he’s listening to lately, Herzog revealed he’s been digging a lot of ranchera music by Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandez and Chavela Vargas. “Volver, Volver” is Werner’s fave Chente song. Ajua!

9. Herzog has a face that has gotten him stopped at airport TSAs many times. Even though Herzog maintained that he didn’t like indulging in any kind of drug, nevertheless he’s been stopped by drug security whether in disheveled or clean-shaven states because of his “sinister face.”

10. Werner Herzog’s tips for young filmmakers: You really need to have the courage for your own vision. Learn for or five different languages. Travel on foot, without your household items or a backpack. And have a sense of criminal energy, to “step outside the boundaries of what is considered right.” Read poetry. And make decisions on set, not in post production.

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