At the beginning of June, the legendary German director Werner Herzog was a guest at Bologna’s Biografilm Festival 2019, where he had the opportunity to present his last two projects, the Japanese-language drama “Family Romance, LLC” (2019) and the biographical documentary “Meeting Gorbachev” (2018). On the occasion, he was also honoured with the Celebration of Lives Award for his long and outstanding career. Here is an exclusive report of Herzog’s best quotes collected by Birdmen during the days of the festival.
Q: I think Family Romance, LLC is a story about the loss of identity and the search for something else, just like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Indeed, these themes seem to recur in much of your cinema. Is there any truth in this?
A: It’s a very interesting observation because the estrangement from the world is something central to Kaspar Hauser. What is reality for Kaspar? He had no experience of it until he was grown up. Whatever reality he or the protagonist in Family Romance finds himself in, it seems to be fabricated and fake. Illusion. But emotions are always true, they are always authentic.
Q: I believe that pain is always concealed behind rage, but in the film we don’t see any outburst of rage. It’s a sort of silent, unexpressed pain. It’s in the backdrop, it’s hidden behind the mask, the mask that each of us already has and also the mask that we wear in order to have a social relationship. What is left is just a deep feeling of solitude, of loneliness. If I understood correctly, the only thing you save of this way of living is friendship, which is the only true kind of relationship in the film. So what is friendship for you?
A: Let me try to find an answer. When you look at your friends on Facebook, friends whom you have never met, you have the illusion of friends. They’re all virtual, they’re all quasi-friendships. We have a clear alternative today. With that background, friendship has a very clear appearance for me. I have very few but very deep friends. It has to do not not just with friendship, is has to do with performance of life. See, if I meet somebody on the road who has come from Novosibirsk on foot, within five minutes I can have a deep friendship with this person because we share an experience. It has a lot to do with performance of life. Love is much more mysterious, and you have to be very careful with it. Once it occurs to you, you have to do something very banal: good maintenance. Love can’t be organized, you need to be vigilant, cautious and careful. It’s something very precious and fragile. Keeping love alive is something that it took me many, many years until I learned it. But all of this belongs to a private conversation, not to a press conference!
Q: Let’s talk about Meeting Gorbachev. Why did you choose him among the many prominent figures of the twentieth century?
A: It was not my choice. I stepped into a project that had already been started by my co-director Andre Singer. But I immediately knew that it was somehow sleeping inside of me. I remember I had a plan to make a film and I immediately knew that that was the film I had to make. Speaking of Russians, I would have loved to make a film about Rasputin. And also Trockij would have interested me, more than Stalin. But they’re all dead, and I can’t make a documentary about them.
Q: Did Gorbachev move you?
A: Yes. I have a feeling of deep respect for him. In a way, we Germans owe him the reunification, among other monumental achievements of his life. Long before Gorbachev came to power, I walked around the country on foot to hold it together because politics had given up on reunification. Literally on foot, marking the line of the border. We had an immediate rapport because Gorbachev as a young man travelled on foot a lot, as you can see in the film.
Q: What impressed you the most while talking to Gorbachev and what made you shiver? Did you find a side of him that you wish you didn’t discover?
A: No, there were only limited possibilities to speak to him because he was very ill. I could have him in front of my camera for a limited time only. He is very old, he is 88 now. But of course I wanted to look into the soul of the man apart from small elements of biography. It wasn’t supposed to be a biography. When he speaks about his wife Raisa, you would like to cry.
Q: Which political quality did you find in Gorbachev?
A: I think he was a politician in the best sense of politics. If we needed a new prime minister in Italy, I would vote for him because you can tell he is absolutely professional. He understands the heart of the people and he knows how to do the doable. For Russia he was important because in the last century some social utopias came to an end. One was Communism, paradise on earth. The other were Fascism and Nazism, the Aryan master race dominating the world. So thank God these great utopias came to an end. And Gorbachev, in a way, created the conditions to bring an end to the great undoable utopias. He did the doable. I would vote for him because today we have too many populists, and in contrast to populism there is Gorbachev. That’s why I would like to vote for him.
Q: Did Gorbachev arrive because he was absolutely necessary or could history have taken another direction? What would have happened without Gorbachev?
A: We can only speculate about that. I do believe that the system itself had become so much dead inside, that the collapse would have been much more dramatic and much more painful.
Q: Going back to Family Romance, it’s incredible that you used only 90 minutes out of a 300-minute footage. I think one of the worst evils of our time is the fact that we are bombed by useless images (which we, as journalists, also contribute to create). What could be the solution to such irreversible process?
A: Not only journalists, it’s the internet. Youtube has three thousand million viewers. That’s a lot, more than you can reach. You have to learn how to navigate these images. Young people, in particular, have to learn very quickly. We have to learn to do certain essential things like reading books, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a 800-page book nobody reads anymore. At the same time, we have completely lost the sense of travelling on foot. As human beings, we are made for travelling on foot. So these are things you have to be attentive to, you have to watch out. I don’t have a clear guidance for you, you just have to be vigilant.
Q: What did you make of new technologies? What do you expect from figures like Elon Musk and from what they are imagining for our future?
Well, Elon Musk is a fascinating figure because he is creating electric cars, he is building reusable rockets, so there’s much less waste. At the same time, I think he’s pursuing stupid ideas like colonising space. We should rather keep our planet inhabitable, and we should not be like locusts grazing everything and then move to Mars or to the Andromeda Nebula. The idea of colonising Mars is stupid and obscene. It’s an obscenity. I can say about the Elon Musk and space colonisation the same thing I say about the great utopias of the last century that came to an end. In this century we will see the bankruptcy of technological utopias. We’ll inevitably see it, you don’t have to be a prophet. Space colonisation is an utopia. Immortality is another technological utopia which is not going to happen. You will inevitably witness certain technological utopias coming to an end because, apart from Mars, everything else is hundreds of thousands of years of travel away from us. It’s good that we have movies or television series like Star Trek. Keep dreaming. That’s fine.
Q: How did it change for you the possibility of expression while creating a film like Family Romance, LLC in such independence?
A: It’s not really new, but for me, you know, after many many years of filmmaking I returned to films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I did not need to have any star in the film. I did not need an insurance company that just stifled all fantasy. And, for example, in Aguirre you see that at the end with the oracle. We had no idea what the blind woman was saying, I did not want to have it translated. And all of a sudden, a telephone goes off. You see, everybody else would have stopped and repeated, but I thought it was wonderful and I kept it. In a way, it’s a film that I think it has more of me in it than almost all my other films. Into some of it, of course, there is a sense of solitude. And I’ve always felt like being on an outpost. People say I’m an artist. No, I’m not an artist, I’m a soldier. I’m holding the last outpost that everyone else has abandoned. When I say “soldier” I do not mean in the military sense, but it has to do with courage, loyalty, perseverance, a vision of why you do this. So many qualities are not the qualities of an artist.
Q: There’s so much good cinema in Asia these days and you said that there is so much of you in this film. So, is it easier to shoot these days in Asia, and to make good cinema in Asia, especially in Japan, where people seem to be acting everyday of their lives?
A: Of course the formalities of social life in Japan are enormous. Everything in Japan is stylized, but it’s not like I wanted to make a film in Asia. I wanted to make a film about solitude. The location was Japan but it’s happening to us, we know it, and that’s what the audience immediately sensed. Robot hotels will come. Robots that give us consolation. It’s already coming. Of course the same thing will come very soon to Italy and to the United States and Germany, the highly technological societies. It has to do of course with population shifts, we have an ageing population with many solitary older people. But it’s much deeper than that. For example, human discourse and friendship, today is over the internet, mostly over the internet, on Facebook we have 2850 friends but we have seen only five of them, all the others are inventions. And it makes you solitary. But the strange thing – and you can see it in the film – is that everything is acted, everything is invented, everything is a lie, everything, and yet the emotions are true, the emotions are authentic. And I discovered that only when I was editing the film. I shot a very little amount of footage, a little more than 300 minutes. Other people would have shot 650 hours. But, as you notice in the credits, I also did the camera work. Not only costumes and whatever, I did the camera work myself.
Q: Do you think that we are destroying relationships? And if yes, why are we doing that and what do we do to avoid it?
A: No, we don’t, not really. It’s on individual bases, it depends on how you conduct your life and whether you want to listen to somebody laughing next to you, somebody you can touch, somebody you can drink wine with. That’s something authentic. For example I don’t use a cellphone. I don’t have a cellphone, and that’s healthy, it’s good. I do read and I do travel on foot. So I experience the most essential part of the world on foot. So if you are a young man in love who lives in Poland and your girlfriend lives in Glasgow, you see, you don’t fly there, you don’t take the train: you travel on foot, no matter how long it takes, and then you propose to her. She will understand how much this is important.
Q: In Family Romance, LLC you reminded me of a family that dreams of itself just like Clausewitz’s war and like technology in your documentary Lo and Behold. What do you think about the concept of a family who dreams of itself?
A: I would need at least five years to find the real answer. But since you mentioned Clausewitz, who is quoted in my film on the internet, Clausewitz once famously said that “sometimes war dreams of itself”. And this is strange because after the film was shown, people and experts said to me that we cannot find it in Clausewitz. So there’s a high probability that I made it up and I believed that it was Clausewitz who said it. Clausewitz of course lived in Napoleonic times, but I’m asking a similar question to the internet: does the internet dream of itself?
Q: You dealt with people who are connected with religion and superstition. Do you think that the network and the technology will become our new religion and our new superstition?
A: As long as religion is a human invention, I think it will have a long existence because the mysteries that are out there and the fears that are out there and death that is out there at least give us some consolation. It doesnt’ matter if it is a real truth or not. And let me say something, not really related, about how Pope Benedict XVI abdicated. I believe that somewhere deep in his heart he started to doubt God. When you read the speech that he delivered in Auschwitz, he says “when all this happened, where was God?” three times. He asked “Where was god” three times. And probably part of his resignation is that he doubted God, he doubted his religion and he’s struggling to get it back now, in his solitude. And as for the second part of your question: no, technology cannot take over everything. Of course it will take over much, but we will defend ourselves and you will defend yourself against your own cellphone. When you store what I’m saying in a cellphone, you delegate it to the memory of your cellphone and not to your heart, not to your memory. I was with Japanese tourists on my flight and a lady next to me took at least 300 photos in two hours. But the photos were on her Instagram, not in her experience. You see, it’s an instant delegation of experience.
Q: I read an article in The New Yorker magazine about the same topic and I was wondering if there’s any overlap with your characters or if you had any collaboration with the people of the article.
A: I’ve seen the article in The New Yorker, and yes, the writer, a young woman from Turkey I think, a very fine writer, speaks partially about the same people that I discovered. But she was writing when I had already finished filming.
Q: Which kind of method do you use to approach the protagonists of your documentaries? How far you can get in manipulating their actions?
A: Yes, that’s a correct observation. You see, I’m against cinéma vérité. So I stage and modify truth, I modify facts for the sake of finding the deeper truth. This often happens in art and literature and it’s a very very fine way to look for a deeper truth. My best example is Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s. Jesus is taken from the cross at the age of 33, while his mother is 17. So, did Michelangelo try to give us a fake news? Did he want to lie to us? Did he want to manipulate us? No, by changing facts he just shows us a deeper essence of these two persons. And as long as there’s breath in me, I will try to expand the possibilities of cinema. I will try to find new forms.