Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed - Conversations with Paul Cronin, book review

Herzog may now be a pop cultural icon, but his insights on art are still keen

Hannah McGill
Thursday 14 August 2014 16:37 BST
Cuddly cult object? Werner Herzog, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Cuddly cult object? Werner Herzog, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Such is the reverence, fascination and affection commanded by the German filmmaker Werner Herzog that he has of late sometimes seemed at some risk of becoming a sort of cuddly cult object, enlisted to bring a tang of weirdness to otherwise mainstream endeavours.

Post-millennium, amid his usual prolific production of feature films and documentaries, he starred in a couple of outlandish new antics (saving the actor Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash near his Los Angeles home; stoically brushing off being shot with an air rifle during a BBC interview); did a voice part on The Simpsons; played the villain in the big-budget Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher; and ripped up the rulebook of cinema training for the formation of his own Rogue Film School, participants in which are encouraged to perfect the art of picking locks.

Could it be that the storied director of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo had started to wallow a little in his own myth? On the basis of this magnificent volume of interviews, the answer would have to be: almost certainly not, for his lack of interest in conventional measures of fame and success is evident, but if he has, then let him, because there are few living people with more right to do so.

It doesn't matter if you've seen all of Herzog's films (which would put you in a small minority; they are legion), or just a couple of the famous ones, or even none at all: this book presents an opportunity to enjoy extended musings from one of the most fascinating minds to which we are fortunate enough to have collective access. Film buffs will find endless treasure about just what makes cinema such an enticing medium, along with a bracing dismissal of most of the trappings of film buffery, including awards, festivals, criticism and academic study.

But cinema is a vehicle for this exuberant polymath, rather than an end or an interest in itself. The stories he shares about the formation of his voluminous and varied back catalogue are as much about physical derring-do, political ducking and diving and explosive personal relationships as they are about capturing the right shot. (In fact, Herzog, no fan of overly careful image-making, is more likely to boast of trying to prevent the cinematographers with whom he works from pursuing such self-indulgent goals.)

So there is as much here for readers interested in exploration, and the extreme psychologies of people who undertake it, as for those with a technical interest in filmmaking. And it doesn't stop with anecdotes of experiences on set. Herzog simply seems to have unlimited enthusiasms – art, music, literature, science, history – and extraordinary recall in talking about them. He is a radar for stories and personalities, a tremendous spinner of tales and a sly wit. Herzog is often referred to as maverick or mad, but what is clear here is that this is a powerfully organised intellect, allied to a creativity that is as disciplined as it is expansive. Reading him expounding on his myriad interests and obsessions, in tones that are full and fluent without ever crossing into pretentiousness or obscurity, is a tonic for the brain.

Credit must also be heaped, of course, upon his interlocutor, Paul Cronin, who has expanded this book from his 2002 Herzog on Herzog. Having persuaded an initially unwilling Herzog to participate, Cronin has elicited extraordinary responses with simple but sharp-edged questions, and undertaken with skill and precision what must have been a behemoth of a selection, editing, fact-checking and indexing job.

Some of Herzog's flights of sloganeering ("There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means you get the shot you need… Carry bolt cutters everywhere… Take revenge if need be") err on the cutesy side; but the vast bulk of this book's vast bulk is indispensable. There's so much in it that it could be stocked in almost every aisle of the bookshop, including – such is its assault on cynicism and lethargy – the self-help aisle.

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