Depth of Field
Interview by Huw Spanner
From Amazonia to Antarctica, the German auteur Werner Herzog
has often gone to extremes in search of truth. His latest
documentary, Into the Abyss, took him to Death Row.
Third Way encountered him just off Notting Hill.
You have said that 'Into the Abyss' would have made an
apt title for quite a few of your films, from Aguirre, the
Wrath of God1 even to Cave of Forgotten Dreams.2 It
reminded me of a line in Woyzeck: 'Every man is an abyss. You can
get dizzy looking in.'3 Was that what you were alluding to?
No - however, it's not far-fetched. One of the producers
wanted to call the film 'The Red Camaro', but I felt that we are
not car salespersons and I said: No, it has to do with looking deep
into the recesses of the human soul. It's like gazing into an
When I first heard that title, it put me in mind of a
verse from the Bible: 'The heart is deceitful above all things, and
desperately wicked: who can know it?'4
That is what my profession is about: you have to know the heart of
men to do a film like this - or to be good at directing
It's a fascinating quote from the Bible, because why is there
wickedness? Why does the Creator create this kind of people? Pope
Benedict, who I like as a person of deep philosophical insight - I
think he's the deepest-ploughing thinker in the Papal See for
centuries - in his speech in Auschwitz repeatedly asked: Why did
God allow such a thing? Where was God then? It's really a bold
thing for a pope to ask.
I seem to be one of the very, very few thinking people who defends
the current Pope.
You don't believe in God, do you? Or do you?
No. Well, I had an intense religious phase when I was 14
or 15. I became a Catholic - and, by the way, according to the
dogma of the Catholic church you cannot leave: you are always
baptised, because baptism is an indelible mark on your soul. But,
from my side, I am not a member of the church and I am not
Watching Into the Abyss and then a number of your
other films, I got the impression that you are very concerned with
the unknowability of the human heart, and our mutual
- but not, in fact, with our wickedness and deceit, even
though the murders that are the subject of Into the Abyss
are truly horrific, and the two men convicted for them insist,
unconvincingly, that they didn't do them. You're looking into the
abyss and it's unfathomable, maybe, but there is no sense that it
is dark particularly.
Well, the abyss is not really dark. The crime, which is in a way
the leading character in the story of the film, is absolutely
senseless and it's the nihilism of it that is so staggering and so
disturbing. You are not looking into darkness, you are looking into
an empty void.
I believe that Michael Perry, who was executed eight days after I
filmed with him, was probably the most dangerous person I've met in
He is quite engaging in the interview, isn't he?
He looks like a lost kid. His co-defendant, Jason
Burkett, who is big and intimidating and can look really angry,
was not as scary as him.
Can you say exactly why you wore a suit to interview Perry - and
also the men in your three-part TV series Death
I didn't wear it for any formal reasons - I'm always invisible,
behind the camera. No, it was out of respect for a person who is
going to die soon. My basic attitude was always that the crimes are
monstrous but the perpetrators are not monsters, they are always
human, and I respect them as human beings.
Would you have worn a suit to interview even a man like
Jean-Bédel Bokassa6 when he was awaiting execution? Or even Adolf
Yes. In all cases, without exception. I would not be an
advocate of executing anyone. For me, it is a question of
categorical principle: that a state under no circumstances, for no
reasons whatsoever, should have the capacity to kill anyone. Except
in warfare - I'm not 100-per-cent pacifist.
The previous pope, John Paul II, spoke of a 'culture of death',
meaning genocide as we had it in Germany, capital punishment,
assisted suicide, abortion - it is not the meaning of creation,
as he understood it, that abortion should be an everyday event. And
I find this argument very compelling, even though I do understand
that women should have [a choice].
You've said elsewhere that for you the case against the
death penalty is not an argument but a story: the story of Nazi
barbarism. How did the war and its aftermath shape you, your
character and your imagination?
The war itself was absent in my childhood, and I didn't
grow up [amidst] ruins. There was no fighting where my mother fled,
in the Tyrolean mountains - not a single shot was fired, there was
no bombing, nothing.
But the war shaped me in a way, in that I grew up in a world where
there were no fathers around - either they had perished in the war
or they were prisoners. There was (and I say it with a necessary
caution) anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no
fathers, no clear rules. We had to create our own rules.
And, may I add, we had no running water, for example. You had to
fetch water in a bucket from the well - which is a wonderful way to
learn the value of water.
Going back to the red Camaro, it is our shallow consumer
culture that has helped to prompt young men to commit murder just
to get a desirable car, isn't it?
Well, it's a very interesting idea. Yes, you're
Whereas you have said in the past that, in spite of the
extreme poverty, you had a wonderful childhood. Do you feel sorry
for children growing up today in the West?
Not sorry, but… My own three children never participated
in affluence. They never threw food away. It is just unthinkable
for me, because I was very hungry as a child. It pains me to see
people in restaurants, in Germany or the United States, throwing
You've often talked about the beauty and the horror of the
universe. It's hard sometimes, because you have such a mischievous
sense of humour, to tell whether you mean it or whether you are
But when you look at it, there is no harmony in the
universe. It's very hostile, very disordered, very chaotic - it's
unpleasant even thinking of venturing out there. If you expect
something benign, orderly, in full harmony, it's just not the way
the world is created.
Do you find that human beings are of a piece with the rest
of creation? Are we also beautiful and horrifying?
Of course we are part of this creation and of course we
are, in a way, ill conceived, like the rest of what we see.
And yet it would be easy to name other writers and
directors whose work is full of human nastiness but, apart from the
two pimps in Stroszek , it's hard to think of any
really wicked people in your films.
Yeah, that may be right. Of course, in Into the Abyss I
say explicitly to Michael Perry, 'Your childhood was complicated,
but it does not exonerate you and it does not mean that I have to
like you.' And that's unusual, because normally I like the
protagonists in my films - they are always people who are close to
Many people have commented that your feature films and
your documentaries alike are often about marginal or eccentric
people, or 'freaks' and 'monsters' -
Well, that's the commentators' problem.
But you have said - and I don't know whether you were just
being provocative - that, on the contrary, you see all these
people, even Aguirre, as normal and it's the people around them
that are -
Bizarre. And mavericks and…
But in Into the Abyss you treat everybody with
respect, and in a way the most impressive people in the film are
the chaplain, the policeman and the former executioner, who all
represent 'normal' society.
Yes, but, you see, Into the Abyss in a way is an
exception to how I normally would do a film. In a documentary, I
would stylise, I would invent, I would bring in elements that are
complete poetry or science fiction. Like in Cave of Forgotten
Dreams there is a chapter at the end about radioactive mutant
albino crocodiles. I want to take the audience with me into a realm
of fantasy and poetry and it's completely wild. But you don't do
that when you are sitting in front of a man who is going to die
eight days later. There won't be any albino crocodiles. So, in a
way I think this film is slightly different.
In Herzog on Herzog,8 you say that there are
things in your documentaries that you made up - there's a quotation
at the beginning of Lessons of Darkness9 that you
attribute to Pascal, and one at the beginning of
Pilgrimage10 you ascribe to Thomas à Kempis -
Yes! Beautiful, beautiful -
Yes, but you made them both up.
Because neither Thomas à Kempis nor Pascal could have
said it better.
So, you are happy to fake things - and yet in
Fitzcarraldo , when you wanted to tell a story about
a 340-ton boat being dragged up and over a steep hill in the depths
of the Peruvian rainforest, you actually did it.
It's not a contradiction.
Can you explain?
In a documentary, I would be inventive and I would
fantasise in order to reach a deeper stratum of truth. In
Fitzcarraldo, I moved a real boat over a real mountain,
but it was not for the sake of realism. I'm not interested in
realism. I transform a real event into pure fantasy, into
something operatic. I like films where audiences can trust their
own eyes, but not in a pedantic, bureaucratic way. It's not the
'accountant's truth'; it's something we'd like to see in a movie -
Oh, yes! A real ship and, man, it's moving over a mountain! - in
order to create a gigantic metaphor.
But isn't the bottom line that if an audience sees a
Pascal quotation on the screen, it has to be something Pascal
actually said? Doesn't it destroy people's trust in you when they
discover that you made it up?
Let me quote it. At the beginning of Lessons of
Darkness it says: 'The collapse of the stellar universe will
occur - like creation - in grandiose splendour.' Under it, it says
'Blaise Pascal'. When the first image arrives on screen, you are
already elevated, you are transported into something sublime - and
I never let you down from there. And that is the reason, and I
would invent anything if necessary -
I still don't see why you can't attribute that opening
statement to yourself.
It has a certain charm to say Pascal, because it sounds
like Pascal almost - and he couldn't have said it better.
I have a joy of invention. I have the joy of storytelling in me -
which is why I make films. It's not for the sake of cheating or
misleading anyone (and that's why I tell certain publications, 'I
made this up'); it's actually to help you to rise above your
existence into the realm of something cosmic, something sublime,
something horrifying, something of great beauty.
You have told the story of how in 1974, when you were told
that your mentor [the great German film historian] Lotte Eisner had
had a massive stroke and you must go to see her before she died,
you 'grabbed a bundle of clothes' - and set off from Munich to
Paris on foot! You knew, you have said, that she wouldn't die
before you got there. Now, that's an expression of faith in
The Catholic church has a wonderful term for it:
Heilsgewissheit, the certainty of salvation.
But, as you're not a believer, what was it that you were
expressing faith in?
Partly in myself, that I would defy death by walking - in
the book I published [about the journey], Of Walking in
Ice, I say: 'When I walk, a bison walks. When I stop, a
mountain stops.' And I come, I come with the necessary weight and
the necessary determination and the necessary faith of the pilgrim
and the necessary defiance of death, and I knew she would survive.
Which she did, for nine more years, until she finally asked me:
'Can you take this spell off me?' I said, 'Yes, it's taken off' -
and then she died, then she actually died!
Did you really believe that your decision to walk to Paris
could keep her alive?
There was not much thought, I just set out and I knew I
had to do it and she would not die because I was coming. But I was
not coming by plane; I was stomping one million steps towards
You must have been very confident, because you even made a
detour to see Troyes Cathedral.
Yes. The strange thing is, I never had any contact [with
her], I didn't know if she was still alive or not. I walked a
straight line - I took a compass reading and I walked straight
through forests, over mountains and rivers - but, towards the very
end, I allowed myself to make a detour of 20 or 30 miles to visit
the Gothic cathedral at Troyes, because I'm a great admirer of the
medieval writer Chrétien de Troyes. It was a very, very intense
In your so-called Minnesota Declaration of 1999,11 you
say: Walking is virtue -
And tourism is sin.
You have been walking very long distances ever since you
were a teenager. Can you say a little about how it has changed your
view of the world?
It's not easy to answer. I only know, with absolute
certainty - I have to say it in a dictum: The world reveals itself
to those who travel on foot.
That's it. No further explanation. My understanding of the world,
my reading of the world… The world has declared itself, it has
shown itself. And this is why I tell film-makers: Walk a thousand
miles. It's much more worth than three years' film school.
There's a lot of serendipity in your films, I think, and
in Into the Abyss there's an extraordinary moment when you
say to the chaplain at the 'death house', 'Tell me about an
encounter with a squirrel!' and he comes apart.
He was speaking about the greatness of God's creation and
the mercy of God and Paradise for everyone - forgetting that there
is such a thing as hell in Christian belief - and he was like a
phony television preacher and I knew I had to shake him out of it.
So, when he told me that sometimes on the golf course he would see
a squirrel or a deer looking at him with big eyes, I asked him:
'Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel!' And only by knowing
the heart of men would I ask a question like that, because it
breaks him open. Why, I cannot explain, but it does. All of a
sudden, he becomes profound. He becomes a deep human being.
One of the most celebrated sequences in your work is the
dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek. In your commentary
on the DVD you say that capturing that on film was a kind of
Yes. Sometimes I can't help feeling that I am touched by
the grace of God - even if I don't believe in God. Perhaps it is a
distant echo from my religious phase.
Yet in the Minnesota Declaration you say: 'We ought to be grateful
that the universe out there knows no smile.' Isn't there a
contradiction between a heartless universe and something, whatever
it may be, that keeps giving you these gifts?
Well, it may be despite the universe, despite creation.
You have to wrestle meaning from it, you have to wrestle a minimum
amount of dignity from it, a minimum amount of joy, a minimum of
grace upon you.
But that 'grace' is wrestled from it, it isn't
It doesn't give it to me. You have to wrestle it from
Thank you for giving Third Way so much of your
We should have spoken more about the Bible! I find it
very relaxing, a real relief, that we are talking not just about
movies but about the universe, about creation and whatever.
Religion, in fact. We have covered some good ground, some basic
questions I have struggled with.
1 His 1972 film starring Klaus Kinski as the
Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, who leads his men to their
eventual destruction in a futile search for the city of El
2 His 2010 documentary, shot in 3D, about the prehistoric
paintings in the Chauvet caves in southern France
3 Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund; es schwindelt einem, wenn
4 Jeremiah 17:9 (KJV)
5 Screened on Channel 4 on March 22 & 29 and April
6 The self-styled emperor of the Central African Republic,
was the subject of Herzog's 1990 documentary Echoes from a
Sombre Empire. Herzog has asserted that he was a cannibal and
'seemed to represent the kind of human darkness you find in Nero or
Caligula, Hitler or Saddam Hussein' (Herzog on Herzog). He
had permission to interview Bokassa in prison, but was expelled
from the CAR before he could. Bokassa was later released and
7 One of the principal architects of the Holocaust, who was
tried in Jerusalem in 1961 and hanged the following year
8 Faber and Faber, 2002
9 A 'documentary' shot in the burning oilfields of Kuwait in
10 An 18-minute 'documentary' made with John Tavener for the
BBC in 2001
11 See www.wernerherzog.com/52.html#c93.