Werner Herzog on Insanity, Antiquity and Wrestlemania

Last night Werner Herzog spoke at the New York Public Library’s main branch as part of its “LIVE from the NYPL” series. Herzog is endlessly quotable and mordantly funny, so I took down some notes to paraphrase here. He was in conversation with his old friend Paul Holdengräber about “Salt and Fire” – his newest movie starring Michael Shannon, his family’s history in Greece, and other oddities.

Because the talk was presented in part by the Onassis Cultural Center of New York, the conversation repeatedly circled around the importance of Greek antiquity for understanding our roots as Western civilization – Herzog urges us all to read Thucydides btw – and Greece’s floundering economy of the present. It turns out the school Herzog attended had a focus on the classics, and he spent nine years studying Latin, six years Ancient Greek, and then “a little English, not much” in his last year. When asked to, he can still recite the first few lines of the Iliad in their original Greek.

The classics reappear in our lives in surprising ways, if you know where to look. Herzog is interested in Wrestlemania as a “crude form of mythology and drama,”not in the fights, he was quick to add, but in the McMahon family’s performances. The owners feud in the ring, with the father fighting his son; then fighting his daughter; at some point his mistress attacks his wife. (I fact-checked this for you guys and ended up watching all 14 minutes of the spectacle, unable to look away. The acting is so bad it hurts to watch, like a grade-school play. However I couldn’t confirm Herzog’s reference to the wife sometimes appearing in a wheelchair and dark sunglasses because she is “blind from grief.”)

Because Herzog is curious about so many things, his conversational detours are pretty unexpected. He spoke about humans having a cultural memory (basically invoking Jung’s collective unconscious though not in those words) that appears over and over again in our art. He spoke about the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains the oldest known prehistoric cave paintings – and was the subject of his 2010 movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In the cave the only human representation is of a woman’s lower half juxtaposed with a bison head. Herzog likened it to Picasso’s etchings of the Minotaur and a woman as all part of the same cultural lineage.

Many of my characters make a lot of sense. Even the mad ones.

He sometimes sounds a bit mystical when describing images that recur across time, or how one must learn to read patterns in landscapes. “I try to understand and decipher the signs. And they resist.” Although seeing patterns where none exist is a sign of madness. He knows this. Once while traveling through the mountains of Greece, Herzog came upon a valley of windmills and found it hard to recognize them for what they were, instead of the flowers that they appeared to be. He briefly wondered if it was a “deranged landscape” or if he himself were mad.

Holdengräber then asked: “What separates your consciousness from a consciousness that goes mad for real?”

Herzog hesitated. “I better … shouldn’t know it. And don’t want to know it. There is a reflex of sanity inside of me that doesn’t want to approach that question to the very last step and look into the abyss. I’ve looked into abysses in my films – but I don’t want to look into that one.” The audience chuckled until he clarified: “No it’s not funny. I mean it.”

Of course, at some point in the talk, he had to take a shot at my generation for reading Twitter instead of books – why that would be mutually exclusive I don’t know, but the complaint is de rigueur by now. He did offer us these solid tips to make movies, or at least to lead interesting lives, which I’ll leave you with now:

  1. Travel on foot.
  2. Read, read, read.
  3. Earn money with your own hands.
  4. Don’t work in an office. Work as a bouncer at a sex club or a work as a guard in a lunatic asylum.

You can listen to the entire conversation here at the New York Public Library website.

by Laura Creste, Web / Public Relations Editor