WERNER HERZOG, at 40, has made 12 features while making a name for himself as a man willing to face tall odds to get his idiosyncratic visions on film. He's worked with casts of dwarfs and hypnotized people, in locations ranging from Czechoslovakia to Amazonian Peru and has faced personal dangers ranging from a dive into a cactus plant, to walking up a percolating volcano, to eating his own shoe (with ketchup, steak sauce and olive oil) before an audience in Berkeley.
In 1977, he began planning his grandest epic yet. "Fitzcarraldo" (which opened recently at the Avalon and is West Germany's entry for Academy Award consideration) is a film based loosely on an 1890s rubber baron who carted a dismantled ship through the Peruvian jungle. For Herzog, it became the story of an opera fanatic who tries to raise money for an opera house in the jungle by hauling a steamship over a hill, thereby gaining access to a rubber harvest isolated by dangerous rapids.
In five years of struggle, Herzog had to give up his first two choices for the title role -- Warren Oates and Jason Robards -- as well as the character Wilbur, a feebleminded actor, who was stricken from the script after Mick Jagger ran out of time to play the part. Worse, a plane and a boat accident not directly connected with the shooting resulted in the death of one man and injuries to several other persons. The death was a drowning that Herzog arrived just moments too late to prevent -- although he dove repeatedly into the muddy whirlpool-laced waters of the river that ran by his jungle encampment.
As Herzog arrived this September to open his film at the New York Film Festival, his troubles weren't over. Although he's won the award as best director at the Cannes Film Festival, he soon found that his friend Les Blank's documentary, "Burden of Dreams," was stealing some of "Fitzcarraldo's" thunder, and that in it, Herzog's Peruvian struggle seemed quixotic, adventurist. Planted in a downhill ski racer's crouch on a chair in an Algonquin Hotel suite, he often dissected his interviewer's questions before answering in precise, deliberate English.
Q: You deny the contention in "Burden of Dreams" that you chose a remote jungle location because of your "insistence on making things tough?"
A: Even friends like Les Blank misread me when he states I chose this extreme location to get extra performances out of the actors and crew. Iquitos, our city base, is surounded by hundreds of miles of flat swampy country where you could not find a mountain, nor two river systems that come as close together as the story demanded. It's a profound misreading to say I'm looking for difficulties and trouble. I do have a very straight record of more than 20 years in the profession now, and I just hate adventures. They stink.
Q: Yet you climbed that volcano in the 1976 documentary, "La Soufrie re" that you admit was expected to explode "with the force of seven or eight atomic bombs of Hiroshima size."
A: I had heard that one single poor black man refused to be evacuated. The entire island, 20,000 people, had been cleared in abrupt haste. I went for that black man, who apparently had a different idea of what death means to us. Of course, we had to expose ourselves to certain dangers. We got away with the film and I'm still around.
Q: You seem to work everywhere but your home country, and still you're said to epitomize the "New German Cinema."
A: In fact, most of it is Bavarian cinema. The rest of Germany, for us -- Fassbinder was Bavarian -- is just the Prussians. Remember, Bavaria was an independent kingdom until the First World War. We have our own exuberant fantasies. We had mad King Ludwig II, who built the dream castles Walt Disney tried to imitate. The Prussians had Emperor William II, who knew only how to organize an army.
Q: There wouldn't seem to be much in common in your work and Fassbinder's.
A: Not in subject matter. I simply liked him around as a real Bavarian wild boar, sweating, panting, with a foul smell, exuberant, hard-drinking, breaking wildly through the underbrush and leaving gaps wide open for others to walk through.
Q: When you were making "Fitzcarraldo" and there were wild accusations of genocide in the German press, director Volker Schlondorff defended you.
A: With Schlondorff, to whose films and subjects I still feel further removed, I do have a friendship. In a press conference full of crazy accusations of murder, a Stalinistic type of show trial against me, all of a sudden Schlondorff stood up and grabbed the microphone and I have never seen a man that close to a heart attack. He was blue and pink in the face and he started to scream at the people in defense of me and I do not forget that.
Q: You seem to be intense in your demands and in your loyalties. On the first day of shooting in 1981, Robards refused to come to the set because there had been a local strike and there was a threat of gunplay in the town. Yet Jagger came to the set "very relaxed."
A: He has my friendship forever for that. He's a professional, he knows the value of real work -- and he's an incredible performer.
Q: You'd shot 40 percent of the film when Robards got sick, and Jagger ran out of time. Did you have any misgivings about starting from scratch with Klaus Kinski, who'd been in four of your previous films, replacing Robards?
A: Well, Kinski has played in 170 films, most of them bad, not smiling for a second, a driven madman. But the bastard can do anything, and he made me see Fitzcarraldo as a man who had this quality of human warmth and charm and humor. When I flew out from the jungle I was exhausted and down and I thought Kinski would scream at me. But he ordered champagne, and in 10 seconds agreed to be in the film. He knew every word in the screenplay by heart. He had always said to me, "You can sign up anyone; I am Fitzcarraldo."
Q: You've said your next project will probably be prose work on your recent 1,000-mile walk through Germany. Do you think your next film will take you to another distant spot?
A: I don't know. Somehow I am searching, for exactly what I don't know -- some sort of dignified place where we should live, or just organize our existence. It's a deep urge I can't really describe further, but even though I have shot a film like "Aguirre" (a story of Spanish conquistadors traveling dangerously down a river) in the Peruvian jungle with the conquistadors of the 16th century, it is still a very German film.
Q: When your "Stroszek" came to America from Germany, he became pathetically lost in those spiritual terms.
A: I think this kind of suffering and not finding the fulfillment of an innocent dream is an experience that many people, immigrants, have had in coming to the U.S.
Q: I know you have certain resentments against the U.S. film industry per se.
A: As with many cultural things, cinema in Germany is dominated by the major American studios. Perhaps 20 percent of the German film market is dominated by German films. This is a confrontation we have to deal with. So "Stroszek" is not a far-fetched subject for me. It's quite familiar, on many levels.
Q: You've hinted that part of your impetus for going through the actual rigors of hauling the boat over the hill, and shooting the rapids, was a reaction against the Hollywood ways.
A: One of the very early decisions was that there should not be a 'plastic' solution, a miniature boat going over a studio hill in a botanical garden in Hollywood. With all these films like "Star Wars," the audience has lost faith in what they actually see with their own eyes. I would like to have them back in a position where they can trust their own eyes again.
Q: Yet you say you don't shoot such scenes simply for the sake of realism.
A: No, because it is highly stylized. But the sheer toil of it, real people at work, is a very good attitude for filmmaking. You are rewarded on the screen. It's like watching a man actually play the cello; you can watch him for 15 minutes without cutting.
Q: You've pointed out that you wanted to show a way of life that's disappearing from the Amazon, but not make an ethnographic film.
A: Yes, that's why, when you hear jungle drums in the beginning, it is not native music; it's French recordings made in the African country of Burundi.
Q: Similarly, you have no particular knowledge of opera, but the rapture of an opera lover serves as your chief metaphor.
A: Well, there is a long fascination I have had with these early recordings of Caruso that date back to Milan in 1902, and some from New York in 1905-1906. They are like a character in the narrative. But I don't really know opera, just that the quality of an opera is to change everything into music.
I keep referring to one line that a missionary says to Fitzcarraldo. He says he can't seem to cure the Indians of their notion that normal life is just an illusion behind which lies the reality of dreams, and Fitzcarraldo is very interested and interrupts him. He says, "This interests me very much. You see, I am a man of the opera." Of course, this is my fabricated line, it is not an Indian concept. But it is one of the basic themes of the film, which is never realistic--it's always trying to find a special quality in the landscapes, in the jungles, in this kind of sweating out dreams and illusions and demons.
Q: And, of course, you had to sweat through the dream just as Fitzcarraldo did.
A: I would be the last one to look for obstacles. But I would be the last one to chicken out when they come and when they become a necessity, there is only one choice -- (laughing) -- you just go with God through the enemies where they come the thickest.