During a post-screening Q&A at Sundance this year, an audience member accused Werner Herzog of having ridiculed the title character in the filmmaker’s Grizzly Man. Herzog offered to duke it out. “I was instantly furious,” said the director. “I challenged him to meet me in the men’s room for a fistfight. Of course, in Bavaria, you meet for a fistfight in the men’s room, but here it has a different connotation. I should have said, ‘I’ll meet you in the alley.’ Or the parking lot . . . ”
It’s fitting that Herzog should worry most about how he threatened to put out someone’s lights—he has been known for his intemperate but precise movies since the ’70s German New Wave and films such as Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu. No one was ever surprised by the story that he pulled a gun on Klaus Kinski during the making of Aguirre, the Wrath of God; fans are probably disappointed that Herzog insists it’s not true.
At 62, Herzog’s passion and energy remain unfailing. Three of his films are hitting screens this summer. Opening at Film Forum June 1, The White Diamond is the story of lighter-than-air ships, death, and redemption, and an example of the nonfiction storytelling that has established Herzog as one of the world’s great documentarians since the early ’90s. In Wheel of Time (opens June 15), Herzog follows the pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, India (the spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment), and examines the kind of religious devotion that would compel acolytes to travel 3,000 miles to the sacred place, one prostrated body length at a time.
The third film is Grizzly Man (opening August), in which Herzog communes with Timothy Treadwell via the late naturalist’s startling footage of grizzlies in the wild. Treadwell’s death by bear makes this the most sensational of the three projects but not necessarily—and Herzog agrees—the best. “[White Diamond] has greater beauty and greater depth than Grizzly Man,” he said. “It’s quintessential storytelling. And I’m good at that.”
In his nonfiction films (which have eclipsed such late-career fiction catastrophes as Invincible), Herzog is prone to the red herring, the blind alley, and the secondary narrative; in White Diamond, the ostensible hero is aeronautics engineer Graham Dorrington, but during the journey to the Amazon—where Dorrington’s state-of-the-art dirigible is used to explore the canopy of the rainforest—the focus shifts to a local Rastafarian. Herzog allows the most interesting character to dictate the course of the film. “At the end, the real leading character becomes his rooster,” he joked.
What Herzog decides not to give his viewer is often as important as what he does. In Grizzly Man, we never hear the tape of Treadwell’s killing (the lens cap was on Treadwell’s camera, but the audio was on). When Herzog first learned of the tape, he thought it would be part of the film. But “once I listened to it, I knew for sure it wasn’t.”
The cave beneath the waterfall in The White Diamond, inaccessible to the area’s native tribes, has long been a mythic source of awe. Thanks to technology—something Herzog devoutly believes in—it was filmable. “A local Amerindian tribal man told us, ‘Please, please do not show it because this is part of our identity, this is part of our cultural secret,’ ” Herzog said. “So, of course, I do not show it. I filmed the cave, even though it was pretty dark, so there wasn’t much to see anyway, but whatever I filmed will not be seen. Period.” Herzog’s sense of propriety actually makes for better filmmaking. The mystery provided by Treadwell’s unheard scream, or an unseen cave, may be even more haunting than the actual audio or video.
Herzog can’t define how he finds subjects. “I would rather say they find me,” he said. But in his nonfiction output (Herdsmen of the Sun, Lessons of Darkness), one sees a filmmaker contending with the perpetual human struggle to confront a world of “chaos, hostility, and murder” (as Herzog puts it in Grizzly Man) and make it conform to a more comfortable vision of how the universe works. Treadwell tried to impose a personal fantasy on wild nature; Dorrington tried to atone for a death through exploration and invention.
Herzog sees something similar—a kind of egocentric reaction to the world—in, of all things, the celebrity nightmare of Michael Jackson. “Of all the people I know of,” Herzog said, “he is the first candidate for suicide. Because as wrong as I may be, he is in conflict with his own self and his own missed childhood and with society and with his imagination and his wrongdoings, which he cannot see as wrongdoings—if there are wrong-doings. But he’s a deeply tragic figure and he touches my heart deeply.”
One can sense what’s coming. “You know,” Herzog says, “I would be the one to do the definitive film on him . . . “