An Aug. 7 Arts article about filmmaker Werner Herzog omitted one of the production companies behind Herzog's movie "Grizzly Man." The film was produced by both Lions Gate Television and Discovery Docs and distributed by Lions Gate Films. (Published 8/9/2005)
So here he is: the film director who stared down crazy old Klaus Kinski in the Amazon jungle and threatened to shoot the German actor dead if he walked off the set of "Fitzcarraldo." The same filmmaker who insisted his crew shoot on a fiery volcanic island despite an imminent eruption. The one who promised to eat his own shoe if fellow filmmaker Errol Morris ever completed his movie and, when Morris accomplished his task, proceeded to munch. The man who walked from Munich to Paris as a "pilgrimage" to save the ailing critic Lotte Eisner. And the same one who, in the 1960s, smuggled arms across the Mexican border.
Or so go the rumors, of which there are many more. As Werner Herzog -- in Washington a couple months ago to attend a screening of "Grizzly Man," his documentary opening here Friday -- listened to a quick recitation of these anecdotes, he beamed. It was a strange Sphinx-like smile from one who claims not to understand irony, and whose eyes suggest chilly blue laser beams behind the slits of machine gun turrets. "It's good and comfortable for me to give life to these doppelgangers -- these other [fictional] Herzogs out there," he said in an accent thicker than Bavarian Weissbier foam. "But, of course, all of these things have some factual truth to them. I didn't threaten Kinski with a gun. I had no gun in my hand, but I had it nearby and I would have shot him if he'd left. There was a duty for both of us, beyond our personal feelings" to finish the film.
The volcano incident wasn't really so dramatic, he insisted. He did walk to Paris for Eisner in the 1970s, which he wrote about in his book "Of Walking in Ice." A decade earlier, he smuggled TVs into Mexico as a young man for a short time and, on one occasion, agreed to buy a silver Colt revolver in Texas for a rich Mexican ranchero.
"I was no arms dealer," he said. But the apocrypha, he admitted, fuels the mystique that, in turn, opens wallets for such projects as "Grizzly Man," which he produced with the Discovery Channel and was distributed by Lions Gate Films.
The documentary, which critics have greeted with raves and which won an award at Sundance this year, is about a man whose obsession with wild bears becomes his fatal undoing.
Wildlife activist and bear lover Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers with the bears of Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve, documenting his up-close interactions with them for the last five. This love affair ended in October 2003, when Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were mauled and partially devoured by one of his beloved grizzlies.
At 62, Herzog has made more than 50 films -- fictional and documentary -- which often center on uneducated men, visionaries, eccentrics, and the mentally addled. The director, who insists he has never dreamed in his life, chooses subjects filled with driving ambition, visions or one-of-a-kind worldviews that seem to come from some mystical, almost primordial source inside them.
A leading player in the New German Cinema of the 1970s and '80s (which included fellow Germans Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Volker Schloendorff and Margarethe Von Trotta), Herzog exploded into the international circuit with 1972's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and 1974's "Every Man for Himself and God Against All" (also known as "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"), which took the second-place prize at Cannes and other awards in Germany.
Herzog immediately cemented a reputation as a visionary of seemingly limitless energy and, to detractors, megalomania. In all his work, Herzog said, he has been on a quest for "ecstatic truth. I've always tried to strive for a much deeper truth in the images, in cinema, in storytelling, on a screen, so whether I've achieved it or not remains to be seen. . . . There are short fleeting moments when I know that I have achieved it. And to work for that and to strive for it and to try, gives at least some dignity and some meaning to my existence."
His documentaries, which are frequently as mystically charged as his dramatic works, have taken Herzog to many distant locales, including North Africa, Australia, Patagonia and the Laotian jungle. His fictional works have often featured Kinski as some kind of mad, driven antihero -- hardly a stretch for the notoriously difficult, emotionally volatile actor. In "Aguirre," a brilliant study of megalomania that many critics considered a metaphorical spin on Adolf Hitler, Kinski was the demented Aguirre, a 16th-century Spanish nobleman obsessed with finding Eldorado. He also played the animalistic, sensual vampire in Herzog's 1979 "Nosferatu" and, in 1982's "Fitzcarraldo," an obsessive businessman-dreamer determined to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
In the latter film, Herzog forced locals to drag a 320-ton steamship over a hill in the jungle. The stunt (superbly documented in Les Blank's 1982 "Burden of Dreams," one of many documentaries about the Herzog mystique) cost lives and near mutinies. Herzog was less the bad boy than Kinski, whose rants became so obnoxious that one of the Amazonians offered to kill the actor as a favor to the production crew.
"Many of my films have not been easy work," Herzog said without a scintilla of irony.
Part of an artistic generation that grew from the ashes of Nazi Germany, Herzog said he came from a culture that knew no fathers.
"I grew up in a very remote mountainous place in Bavaria," he recalled, "so I had an environment of some sort of wilderness around me. I did not know that cinema existed until I was 11. And we had to invent our own toys, our own games. We had no fathers to teach us what to do. Our generation is all self-taught, so there is a certain innocence or a wildness, quote unquote, in me. So most probably because of that, I respond easily to characters like Aguirre and Timothy Treadwell."
Herzog sees Treadwell as a fellow "illiterate of filmmaking, and yet a great filmmaker with no training. What he shot in these tapes is unique and unprecedented in its beauty. And no Hollywood studio could ever create some of the footage he did."
Herzog learned about Treadwell and his camera footage, more than 100 hours in all, when he met producer Erik Nelson at a wildlife festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo. When Nelson told Herzog he was planning to produce and direct a feature documentary about Treadwell for Discovery, something clicked.
"I stared at him and instantly, without missing a beat, with my heavy, thick German accent, I said, 'No, I vill direct this movie,' " Herzog said, cracking a rare smile.
"You don't come between Werner and a film project," said Nelson, recalling the encounter. "That's the one thing he shares with 1,000-pound grizzly bears and their salmon. You either get out of the way or you get steamrolled."
If Nelson was a pushover, Jewel Palovak certainly wasn't. Treadwell's former girlfriend owned the rights to his tapes and had her own ideas for the movie. It made for heated debate.
"We had some ranting about the meaning of nature," Herzog remembers. "And Jewel is more defending Treadwell's position, that there is harmony in the universe and the only disturbing element is human beings. I don't see it that way."
Herzog, who was here in June to attend the Silverdocs festival, relived that running argument (which echoed his narration in the film) for a festival audience.
"There's no music of the spheres," he thundered from the stage, his brow furrowed in a sort of Teutonic darkness. "And there's no harmony, and the common denominator in nature, as we find it out here among wild bears, is hostility, chaos and murder. . . . Bears kill bear cubs sometimes, to stop the female mothers from lactating, so they have a partner for mating again. But I like to say that male bears kill the cubs to have the females ready for fornication. I say 'fornication' as an insult to all the New Age people on purpose. ['Grizzly Man'] is a definitive anti-Walt Disney movie. I think we need it."
Palovak, who listened with amusement to the forum and has become close friends with Herzog, acknowledges she had a starkly different agenda for the movie.
"I wanted more of the educational slant," she says. "I wanted a little bit of issues facing wildlife. I wanted teachers and some other things. . . . [Herzog's] ranting came about nature. He said, 'It's murder and it's fornication.' No, it's the food chain. Unless you're talking about the higher apes, animals don't murder each other."
Herzog's criticism that Treadwell humanized his grizzlies by giving them names and speaking to them as if they were people seemed to Palovak like hypocrisy.
"By attributing those [murderous] aspects to the bears, Werner's doing exactly what he criticizes Timothy of doing. He's anthropomorphizing the animals and making them murderous."
Whatever its motivation, a grizzly certainly killed Treadwell and his girlfriend. In the confusion, it seems, a camera recorded the event but only the sound. And those terrible moments, by Herzog, Palovak and Nelson's mutual consent, are evoked in a moving, subtle manner. In "Grizzly Man," Herzog listens to Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths on earphones as a grief-stricken Palovak looks on. At no point does the audience hear what's on the tape.
That scene, among others in the film, fulfills Herzog's need for ecstatic truth, the director said, because it "reveals insights into our own wild nature. It's a truth which ultimately illuminates us." As New Yorker film critic David Denby described it in his review, "In a way, 'Grizzly Man' is the ultimate nature documentary, for it chronicles the nature of man as well as the nature of animals."
Herzog's next documentary, "White Diamond," about airship engineer Graham Dorrington, who embarks in a miniature helium dirigible on a dangerous trip over the rain forests of Guyana, has already opened in New York, with plans for wider release. And this month Herzog is scheduled to begin shooting a dramatic feature about Dieter Dengler, an American fighter pilot in the Vietnam War whose plane was shot down over Laos. "Rescue Dawn," starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, is a fictional version of his 1997 documentary about the real-life Dengler, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." And he's talking with producer Nelson about another Discovery-funded film, this one a fictional story set on the high seas.
"I'm a storyteller," Herzog declared. "And that's what my life is. . . . I see myself like the man you would find in the bazaars of Marrakech in Morocco. And people are crowding around as he tells stories to them. And they give him money. That's a wonderful profession. And if I could not make movies, I'd choose to be a storyteller in that marketplace."