Author of Werner Herzog, Joshua Lund answers questions about his motivations for writing, and dispels some myths about Herzog.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A book about the politics of Herzog’s films has been percolating in my mind for what seems like forever. I first encountered Herzog’s films in the mid-1990s, when my dissertation director, René Jara, screened Aguirre, the Wrath of God for his course on Latin American colonial culture. I still recall the experience of watching the film’s famous opening shot, which Herzog predicted would stick in the spectator’s mind for a long, long time. When the conquistadors show up and one of them, played by Klaus Kinski, has aggressively blond locks, and then opens his mouth and out comes German, I think I laughed out loud. An experience akin to reading Borges for the first time. But there’s an analytical provocation here. Aguirre was a Spaniard, a native of the País Vasco. But there were plenty of German conquistadors, especially in the region where Aguirre would eventually make his last stand, the viceroyalty that would later become the modern countries of Venezuela and Colombia, chunks of which were ceded to powerful Germanic families by the Spanish crown. Jorge de la Espira, a German, even became obsessed with El Dorado, just like Herzog’s Aguirre. Hans Staden fraternized with cannibals. And Bartolomé Sánchez Torreblanca was known to have indulged in a range of German fetishes, carried on by his descendants to this day. And moreover Hollywood and world cinema have a long tradition of making their indigenous characters speak the wrong language, dress the wrong way, eat the wrong foods, and so on. So why shouldn’t the Great Conquistador speak German? It has to do with our expectations as an audience, but defying these is a chance to rethink received historical conventions, and to ask where they come from. As I worked through his films, I found that Herzog confronts with these opportunities all the time. When I heard the story that on the set of Fitzcarraldo some of the Indian actors approached Herzog and offered to kill Kinski, I knew that one day I would write this book.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
Pretty much Herzog’s films in and of themselves, combined with the important fact that I watched them as both a fan and as a scholar of Latin American literary and cultural history. Sometimes without even knowing that he’s doing it, Herzog makes critical interventions into the region’s history that are truly original and worth contemplation.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
Really hard to pick just one. My favorite might have been tracking down, with my middle daughter in tow (she’s a photographer, she took the pictures) the ephemera from Herzog’s first opera, at the archives of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna; or cobbling together the details of the indigenous protest around his Fitzcarraldo location shoot. This is more of a general principal than a specific example, but the most interesting to me was the historical rigor of Herzog’s settings, and then the way in which this rigor is disobeyed to such aesthetically and critically productive effect. Just getting a little beneath the surface of Herzog’s stories you can learn a tremendous amount about the history of the plunder of the Americas, the rubber boom, the history of opera in South America, the politics of West African cinema, economic malaise in the 1970s US, the cultural politics of volcanic eruptions, and so on. Herzog’s imagination is vast, and the leads he points us toward regarding historical reality and cultural politics could fill up many books.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
That Herzog is not a political filmmaker. And what it means to be make political cinema.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
That irreverence is intellectually productive.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
Read, the standards: Arendt; Borges; Braudel; Cervantes; Dickens; Faulkner; Garcia Marquez; Morrison. I love Flannery O’Connor. I really liked Ted Chiang’s recent collection of stories. A new collection of Jon Krakauer’s early essays is some pretty hardcore adventure writing. My son just reminded me how perfect Ellison’s Inivisible Man is, so I’m revisiting that for the first time in decades. I’m quietly obsessed with the NYTimes, even though it so often disappoints.
Watch: One of the blessings of working through Herzog’s entire catalogue is that I can’t watch very many “normal” movies anymore. But: Buñuel; Eisenstein; Haneke; Martel; Miyazaki; Reygadas; Rocha; Wells. Kleber Mendonça’s O som ao redor (Neighboring Sounds) is an essential document of our time. I like Ciro Guerra generally, and I like how El abrazo de la serpiente is a sly homage to Fitzcarraldo. I love El Indio Fernández, Mexico’s great “national” filmmaker, whose beautiful pictures of Dolores del Rio and Maria Felix put Gabriel Figueroa’s photography on the map. Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant is my favorite old movie. I’ll mention Martel twice, because all of her films are pretty much perfect, and Zama is about as good as it gets. I like trashy revenge movies, of which Fuqua’s The Equalizer franchise is probably the trashiest best. I have kids so Wes Anderson is on heavy rotation at my house. And like everybody, I seem to mostly watch series these days: Taboo, Devs, Transparent, Better Call Saul, The Venture Brothers, and Masterpiece’s non-musical version of Les Misérables have been my favorites lately. Against my better judgment, I can’t stop watching Fauda. I like those nature films with David Attenborough, I could watch the two seasons of Blue Planet all day and night.
Listen: Stevie Nicks (before and after Fleetwood Mac); James Brown; Marley; Monk; Bud Powell; Sinatra; Prince; Earl Hines; Mary Lou Williams; Jonny Hartman; George Shearing; the Heptones; Billie Holiday (of course); lately Brahms, Ravel, Chopin, and Wagner (that latter one from Herzog); Woody Herman; Howie Alexander III; Clifford Brown (probably my favorite); Chris Conner; old hip hop, I’ve recently gone back to Nas and Madvillain and De La Soul and even PE; I like the new stuff too, but never know what I’m listening to, my kids always have to tell me; oh, yeah, that one guy, Kodak Black. Lots of old, random, folkways type traditional American music, many of the recordings are one-offs by the unsung and unknown heroes of American popular music. Bach. Kamasi Washington’s “Truth” (whose extraordinary video was taken off-line when the Whitney bought it, a real crime against culture) is about as consoling as it gets. I love Django Reinhardt. My daughter has me heavy into the melodramatic theme music of animé hits. Schubert’s Ave Maria always lifts my spirit.