We asked Werner Herzog–considered one of the greatest figures in New German Cinema–to tell us about his work life and his life’s work.
Neuejournal: What is your work mantra?
Werner Herzog: I don’t have a mantra. I just do what I have to do. But I have something which I can pass on which has impressed me, but it’s not my mantra. In Peru there’s a proverbial saying, it says: perseverance is where the gods dwell. I kind of like that. But it’s not my mantra, it comes close.
NJ: What is your favorite skill?
WH: What is our favorite skill. Preparing a steak.
NJ: Rare, medium rare?
NJ: If you had an extra hour every day what would you do with it?
WH: I would continue reading which I do in the previous hours.
NJ: Which historical figure do you most identify with?
WH: Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator. With his nickname Verrucosas. The one with a wart. He is the counterpart against Hannibal in the Second Punic War.
NJ: And why do you identify with him?
WH: I can’t really identify but he’s so impressive because he continued a strategy of attrition against the overwhelming armies of Hannibal who crossed the Alps with dozens of war elephants and crushed the Roman Armies in the most devastating defeats they have ever had in their history. And he was elected general to lead the campaign, and he evaded open field battle and withdrew and withdrew and was somehow nicknamed Cunctator, the cowardly one or the hesitant one, and he was derided. Until today nobody know who he was, but I know. And he saved Rome. He was the one who saved Rome, and he saved the occident ultimately, because otherwise we would have a North African sort of empire instead of the Roman Empire with completely different mindsets and completely different organization. So the most important savior of the Occident and all its thinking and all its organization would be Fabius Maximus.
NJ: What are your favorite films?
WH: Fred Astair. Broadway, Melody of 1940 for example.
NJ: What about Funny Face?
WH: I don’t know that one.
NJ: Audrey Hepburn & Fred Astair.
WH: No I hate her. She’s awful, she’s terrible. I — she’s poison. She’s poison for men. All women love her but she’s the definitive poison to scare you away.
NJ: Why do you feel that she scares you away?
WH: Just looking at her and just the kind of stylization she was forced to do, but I think it was partly her own stylizations. It’s just awful. It’s very much against what I understand in femininity and what women nowadays understand about femininity. It’s terrible.
NJ: That’s the first time I’ve heard that, but that’s a really good reason.
WH: She really scares you. As a man she scares me, and if you want to chase me all the way up to Westchester County, just try to force me to see half a film of Audrey Hepburn– Did you speak of Audrey Hepburn, or Katharine Hepburn?
WH: Good. Katharine is a completely different story.
NJ: Who are your favorite writers?
WH: There are many. Virgil. Roman Antiquity. But there are many others. There’s a new one, whose name is JA Baker, who wrote The Peregrine, about peregrine falcons. It’s an incredible book. But of course Hemingway, or Joseph Conrad. And then some great German Poets, like Burschner. I could rattle on many others.
NJ: Do you have a favorite Hemingway?
WH: Short Stories. And of course, Joseph Conrad also the short stories, like Typhoon.
NJ: What’s the difference between a fantasy and an idea?
WH: An idea is something organized and based in more systematic thinking. A fantasy is something that just occurs. It can occur at any moment. And it’s just almost always anarchic.
NJ: Given the choice of anyone in the world whom would you want as a dinner guest?
WH: Right now in the world?
NJ: Dead or alive.
WH: Well Fabius Maximus of course, but that was 200 BC; today.. Today that’s not easy. Let me think; it’s an interesting question. Yes, the mathematician Perelman.
Lena Herzog: Hello!
WH: Hey Lena! My wife.
LH: Hello my name is Lena Herzog!
NJ: I’m Jess, so nice to meet you!
WH: The question was who would I like to eat dinner together with. Alive or dead. One is Fabius. Fabius Maximus. Whom I have mentioned before. The other one, alive, would be Perelman. The mathematician who solved Poincare Conjecture, but you’ll have to look up the spelling of Poincare. It’s in topology, in the mathematical branch of topology. Fundamental question he posed in the form of a conjecture, but couldn’t prove it. And it took 100 years until somebody proved it and that was Perelman. And he refused the prize money of one million dollars and said he’s not interested in money. And he went out hunting for mushrooms in the forest and he lives in a small apartment still together with his mother, and he refused to accept the Fields Medal which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. A phenomenal sort of intelligence and insight into shapes and [alterbreich?10:45] and explanation of shapes that are basically unthinkable that can be proved. So he should be made our dinner guest. Who else comes to mind?
LH: Your mind, sweetie.
WH: Humphrey Bogart. I’d like to have Humphrey Bogart over.
NJ: What’s your favorite film that he was in?
WH: African Queen. It’s quite a movie.
NJ: How do you feel about failure?
WH: I’m a result of my failure so it’s quite natural and I’ve only learned from failure.
NJ: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
WH: It comes from Jesse Ventura. The former studio wrestler and former bodyguard of the Rolling Stones and former governor of Minnesota. And he said in his wrestling days, where he stylized himself as the sun-tanned surfer. The California blonde surfer. The Jock. And he said, “Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.” So that’s real good advice. I have to invoke Jesse Ventura.
NJ: Anything else you want to add?
WH: I might have taken too long with some of the questions but I had to explain who Fabius Maximus is, or else nobody would understand.
Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal