Every Night the Trees Disappear
Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass
By Alan Greenberg
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Alan Greenberg
All rights reserved.
A Distant Wind
Seventy years ago, near Taunton, Massachusetts, a woman died after her baby was born, leaving only the father to care for it.
"What a pity," said a neighbor, the dead woman's best friend. "She's gone to a better place."
Later, the neighbor's daughter began to watch over the baby on occasion, and she said that one night the mother returned to her child, stooping down to the cradle to give it her breast. But she could not stoop low enough. Nevertheless, the baby grew and prospered better than any child around. And there was another woman who died more recently outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, and often she's seen at the reservoir, combing the children's hair.
It was early October in 1970 when I first heard of Werner Herzog, long after my ancestors left Taunton. Not yet twenty, for me a sense of birth and death was in the air. I read that day, while sitting by the reservoir in Worcester, Massachusetts, that the singer Janis Joplin had accidentally killed herself in Texas. It was further reported that a film by "a young German poet of cinema" named Herzog would be shown at the New York Film Festival. The caption beneath a one-inch black-and-white photograph of sand dunes mentioned that the motion picture, Fata Morgana, was a vision of the desert, and it had something to do with mankind, pure earthly life, and mirages. The screening was sold out. For the next five years, the word "poet" echoed in my mind with the name "Werner Herzog."
Then it was May of 1975. After seeing Herzog's Fata Morgana and Even Dwarfs Started Small, I left for Europe in search of real cinema. Bernardo Bertolucci was directing his epic 1900 in the Po Valley in Italy when he introduced me to an emerging Swiss director named Daniel Schmid. After I asked him if he knew of a new German film by Werner Schroeter called The Death of Maria Malibran, which I had seen alone in New York City's Film Forum months before, the startled Schmid said he had never met an American who knew of this masterwork, then added, "Werner Schroeter is my lover." It turned out that Herzog and Schroeter were friends, and both were presently premiering films at Cannes.
The next day I stood in the teeming headquarters of the Cannes festival's Director's Fortnight program, wondering how I could find Schroeter or Herzog. Immediately, behind the counter, right on cue, someone wrote on a chalkboard in unusually large letters WERNER SCHROETER — HOTEL SAN FRANCISCO, with the hotel's phone number. Minutes later, we met on the steps of the Palais du Festival, where I told Schroeter of my search for Herzog and he told me where to find him at that very moment.
In the conference hall of the Palais du Festival, Herzog answered questions from the press about his latest work, Every Man for Himself and God Against All (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser). The circuslike swarm of reporters in beach togs amid blinding flashbulbs and klieg lights drove me back into the lobby, thinking this was no way to meet the filmmaker. As I watched Herzog speak on a television monitor in French translation, a turbaned Indian man spoke of him and his new film fervently, like a believer.
"What is this noise, this awful screaming that men call silence?" he begged, shaking his head. Then he walked away.
I remained, listening to Herzog speak in a language I could not understand.
At a sidewalk café, I described the press conference to Werner Schroeter. Too embarrassed to report that, in truth, nothing was accomplished, I told Schroeter that I had introduced myself to Herzog, that we'd hit it off famously, and that I hoped to work with him someday. Someone greeted Schroeter and sat down beside him — Werner Herzog was now facing me. Assuming I'd just seen his film, engaging me as if he knew me, Herzog insisted I see a documentary about the star of Every Man for Himself and God Against All, a street singer from Berlin cryptically named Bruno S.
"You should get to know Bruno," he insisted. "There is a good film about him called Bruno the Nigger. You really must see it. Wait — go — there he is." He pointed to a solitary man with a camera across the street staring afar, transfixed. I could not head his way fast enough.
Bruno S. stood before a low retaining wall, facing the sea for the first time in his life. He held a little camera that Herzog had given him and aimed it toward the horizon, taking shot after shot after shot after shot, each the same without exception. I stepped to his side, and Bruno proceeded obliviously with his work. Then he glared at me and, with a look of desperate conviction, spoke.
"People always change," Bruno growled, "but the sea is always the same. Tomorrow you will turn into a pig."
Together the two of us gazed silently upon the Mediterranean Sea. Bruno lifted the camera to his eye once again: click, click, click, click.
"Inhuman whispers praise the will."
Not a word had been said. I nodded my head.
A distant wind blew in.
Six months later, a heavy rain fell upon the Munich-Pasing train station. A white Volkswagen van pulled up, and I climbed inside. The driver of the van did not recognize me as he offered his hand.
"I am Werner Herzog," he said.
Having been sent by a film journal to interview Herzog, the recent winner of the Cannes Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, I was anxious. I told Herzog that I hated interviews, that they are the work of vultures, and that there was something to distrust about them, something wrong about the whole thing.
"Then drop it," Herzog ordered. "Don't do it. Let's forget this interview; it's a waste of time. Make it up — say whatever you want. Or tell them I refused, because I was reading a good book. Which is true. Reading a book takes time. What did they want you to ask me?"
"The effects of American film on the German New Wave."
"Yes, all right — tell them I said, 'Nuts.'"
So in his humble house on Lichtingerstrasse on the outskirts of Munich, I was asked to speak for awhile about myself. I told a few stories, including some strange events that had occurred to me after the Cannes festival. Something about getting arrested in France for carrying a vial of lotus oil that a lab test identified as narcotique, of being thrown into jail with a young criminal who had been incarcerated for stealing a tall refrigerator box filled with used shoes. I remarked that a great change had overcome me around that time. Herzog asked me what it was. I said that it would be hard to explain, but it had something to do with being someone upon whom nothing was wasted, with leading an imaginary life. A life self-envisaged and invented. A life of purpose and conviction. "I want to move the world one inch," I confessed.
The subject shifted to poetry. Herzog showed me several poems he had composed, then asked to read a poem written by his guest, who was a poet as well. I typed out a poem that I had composed when I was twenty. It was my first. Then I shared an anecdote about the film director Bernardo Bertolucci when he was making 1900. One day in Mantova, we, too, had talked about poetry. Seated among a crowd of friends, Bertolucci pursued the subject while eating two bowls of pasta. He mentioned Yeats, reciting, "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" To which I responded, quoting a different Yeats poem, "If our works could but vanish with our breath / That were a lucky death, for triumph can but mar our solitude."
"I am very suspicious of that man," commented Herzog. "His films are like counterfeit money."
Next we listened to the rarest of music. First Herzog played Planctus David, a sacred lament composed in the twelfth century by Peter Abélard, the castrated and excommunicated theologian, who opened the piece with a soprano's unnerving, tragic giggle. This unique moment articulated Abélard's understanding of the enraptured hopelessness of life. Then, a seven-song cycle called Siete canciones de amigo, composed by a fourteenth-century shepherd, Martim Codax, in innocence, while seated on a bluff overlooking the Spanish port of Vigo. Asking the departing ships if they are going to sail off the edge of the earth or return with his love, his naive relic is the only piece of its kind in ancient song. Herzog could see I was moved to epiphany.
"What do you think of Mozart?" he queried urgently, searching my eyes.
"To me, Mozart is frivolous, except for his Requiem and his 'Ave Maria,'" I replied. "Where music is concerned, I am not of the entertainment culture. For me, music is something else."
To this I added my observation that at the Mozart Museum in Salzburg, Mozart's commissioned works meant for public merriment or social occasion were all composed hastily and in a very messy manner, as his original manuscripts reveal. The sacred music he composed, on the other hand, was graceful and flawless, penned with a special care.
Herzog grabbed my forearms in solidarity, then rushed into another room. Seconds later, he returned with his wife, Martje. He pointed at their guest as Martje stared and smiled in agreement.
While I wondered what they were so roused about, Herzog's East German friend Werner Janoud burst in. He had just pedaled his bicycle twenty thousand kilometers from Lima to Montreal, and now he howled madly with delight at the sight of the blushing stranger. Herzog embraced Janoud.
"Listen to that laugh," he urged. "That is why we love him — it is the laugh of the man who knows loneliness."
During dinner we shared our common interest in athletics. I favored boxing not as a sport but as an anthropological event. Herzog declared that ski jumping was a truer test of Fate than any sport that was life threatening. We discussed various competitors' courage and will and the psychic force of the great ones. The subject turned to soccer.
"I recently played a game as a goalie," he said. "We were playing a far superior team, and somehow my club tied them in the last two minutes. Then came a penalty, and they had one guy who would certainly perform the penalty kick. And so I prayed, 'Please, not him,' but he stepped up to kick. I looked at the guy and somehow determined that he would kick it into the right corner. I took heart and told myself, 'Don't be afraid of that man. He will kick very hard, so go to the right, and there, maybe, you can block the ball.' I said, 'Go right, go right — don't even look, go right.' I told myself, 'To the right!' as he kicked. I flew to the left and there was the ball.
"Sometimes all I have in my mind is a flash that says, 'Explode,' and so I explode, with shadowlike figures all around."
On the way back to the train station, Herzog spoke of his goals and plans. He wanted to establish a film school and a film laboratory. "I could mix my own chemicals, treat my own film. When I want an image to be blue, I can make it blue."
The van reached the station, idling with headlights glowing in the falling rain. Herzog pulled the emergency brake and held his breath. He asserted that until now no "outsider" had recognized him and sought him out. Herzog studied this new friend, who saw him as both moth and flame. He mentioned his upcoming film, which would involve hypnosis in some unspecified way, and asked me to work with him on this film and films beyond.
"You must join with me," he implored. "There is work to be done, and we will do it well. On the outside we'll look like gangsters, while on the inside we'll wear the gowns of priests."
Early the next morning, Herzog picked me up to go location scouting with him and Walter Saxer, his longtime friend and Production Manager. Wanted in three countries for passport fraud, Saxer was a tough monkey, a Swiss who ate insect heads to ward off hunger as a kid. On the outskirts of town, Herzog turned into the parking lot of a modern apartment complex. With the engine running, he went to the back of the van with Saxer, lifted the rear bench, and withdrew two rifles. He said he was going to see a producer who owed him money; then he had me sit in the driver's seat and told me, the young foreigner whom he hardly knew, to be ready to leave at once upon their return. After Herzog picked the lock of the producer's door only to find the place empty, we drove away to search all day through Lower Bavaria for places suitable for scenes to be filmed there.
Herzog stopped on the way back at a fisherman's home in Vilshofen, where he scooped a huge pike from the tank for dinner. When the fisherman's daughter crushed the pike's skull with a mallet, Saxer shrieked with delight. When she smashed it with another blow for good measure, he raced out to the yard and danced a gleeful little jig.
The following day, while I was walking home from the marketplace in the center of Munich, a pigeon flew into the side of my head. My phone was ringing when I reached the apartment.
"Tonight I shall conduct a hypnosis experiment," said Herzog. "I would like you to come."
He mentioned having placed a classified ad for volunteers in the local papers, and from those who responded, he would cast characters for his film. Then Herzog said the session would be held nearby on Ainmillerstrasse.
"Just push the button where it says 'Death Lesson.'"
Or was it "Death Lessen"?
A ponderous moment passed; then Herzog called again. The plans had changed — the session would be held in an Italian restaurant.
In the back of the trattoria, Martje Herzog whispered that her husband wished to confer with me before the session began. We huddled in an alcove, where Herzog said he wanted to explain his unprecedented approach to the making of his new motion picture.
"First of all," he began, "the most important thing: the audience need not know this at all, but every actor in this film will be under hypnosis. This will be done for reasons of stylization and not for reasons of total manipulation. My purpose is not 'letting puppets dance.' As we are fascinated by seeing people onscreen as we've never seen them before, this use of hypnosis could give us access to our inner state of mind, starting from a new perspective. One should refer to the film The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool by Morley Markson, which was made with a theater group from a lunatic asylum in Canada, and another film, The Mad Masters, shot in Africa in 1955 by Jean Rouch. In this film some Ghanian laborers take hallucinogenic potions and act out the arrival of the English governor and the Queen. That is a film where one's heart stops beating in the theater."
He paused to make sure I was taking notes. Then Herzog lowered his voice and ushered me into a corner.
"The situation in the shooting — and I don't want to minimize this — will be primarily an experimental one, even if we make some preparatory experiments for the sake of security."
His tone darkened. He wanted to be understood. "The film is meant to convey an atmosphere of hallucination, of prophecy, of the visionary, and of collective madness, which coalesces toward the end. Hypnosis is actually an ordinary phenomenon, but it's surrounded by an aura of mystery because science hasn't furnished us with sufficient explanations for it. Hypnosis is practicable, similar to, let's say, acupuncture, but we don't know enough about the physiological dynamics of the brain involved in both phenomena.
"Hypnosis has nothing to do with demoniacal power that's given to the hypnotist — even if the hypnotists at county fairs would have us believe that — but, rather, it deals generally with self-hypnosis, which hypnotists aid by way of mind fixations and speech rituals. One can only get out of the person what has earlier been programmed into him. It's true that we can observe astounding physical achievements, but such achievements would be possible also with extreme mobilization of the will, with no hypnosis. Beyond that, nothing is possible.
"We have, for instance, suggested to several persons under hypnosis that they were uncommonly endowed actors and that they would recite a memorized text in brilliant dramatic fashion. The result in all cases was amateurism. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Every Night the Trees Disappear by Alan Greenberg. Copyright © 2012 Alan Greenberg. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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