Class Struggle

Todd Meyers in a Master Class with Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog in his Master Class on filmmaking.

THIS YEAR I WENT TO SUMMER SCHOOL. For an hour or so each day I escaped the business of life to indulge in the gleeful asceticism of online education. I let waves of learned, prerecorded prose wash over me. I lurked; I listened. My professor was Werner Herzog and this was his Master Class on filmmaking, and I along with several hundred fellow students––his “soldiers of cinema”––followed twenty-six lessons that taught us that nothing is what it seems.

Herzog offered wisdom as if reading from a manifesto only half finished in his mind. His style was confessional and earnest. He was pragmatic (“Don’t accumulate like a squirrel.” “We are filmmakers not garbage collectors.”) and subdued (“Filmmaking is mostly banality.” “Make sure people turn off their cell phones on set.”). His lessons were a heavy pendulum that swung between tedium and mad inspiration.

Here are my crib notes:

Film school is the seat of nearly all cinematic mediocrity and brainlessness. There, no one reads. If we are wise, we should stop everything and pick up J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1962) for no other reason than its ability to morph author and world. Three-act structure is criminally predictable and trite. Also, stop being so longwinded. If you want to know how to narrate a film, listen to Unsolved Mysteries. Read some poetry to get pumped up. Stop brooding. Do you think handwringing will make your story interesting or cohesive? Write and think with urgency. Be frugal. Money people always slow things down. They are cowardly. Lawyers are pariahs. They are poison to creativity. You will surely fail. Let failure be your teacher. Make a decision. Dailies are misleading. Stop being mild-mannered.

Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010, color HD video, 95 minutes. Foreground: Werner Herzog. Photo: Mark Valesella.

Nestled within the litany of platitudes were striking reflections on film. Herzog speaks of the physical attitude of the camera, using Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (1955) as a prime example––the momentum and magic of the image so often murdered by stylization. A film should allow an audience to trust their eyes again (even in the case of the Hauka of Rouch’s film, violently possessed by their colonial masters). Herzog confesses that he does not know how “aesthetics seep in” to his films Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and he doesn’t care. There is a lot of near-death that surrounds his films, for example the dueling murder plots hatched by Herzog and his muse and nemesis (“the absolute pestilence”) Klaus Kinski. In Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), it was not the physical undertaking of moving a steamship over a mountain or the challenge of wrangling hundreds of local extras in the deep jungle that made the making of these films so fraught, but the slow erosion of will in the face of one’s own exposed nature. Herzog insists, however, that these were not exercises in proving oneself. Inner growth, pushing boundaries, testing limits––these are fundamentally “stupid” motivations and New Age malarkey. And yet, as Herzog describes it, filmmaking wakes something inside, a dormant brother brought forth by film, and along with the promise of kinship comes terror.

Cinema is not feral. There are rules about engaging with humans. There seems to be no line between his professional actors and the subjects of his documentary films. In both cases, people are made to feel safe but kept off balance. Nicolas Cage is told to rage with the “bliss of evil” in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). Christian Bale is lovingly coaxed into consuming fetid meat in Rescue Dawn (2007). Herzog reveals the influences that guide his characters, for instance the mimetic quality of Marlon Brando’s heavy-lidded portrayal of Emiliano Zapata in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952) and the somnambulist performances in his Herz aus Glas (1976). Subjects who are already weird are made weirder by Herzog’s intervention, and as a result, we are drawn even closer to them: the death row inmate in Into the Abyss (2011), the coroner in Grizzly Man (2005)––these are figures offered as a rejection of “vanilla ice cream” emotionality. Herzog is a master conversationalist, lingering uncomfortably on silences long enough for his subjects to plumb their own interiority. Like Baker’s The Peregrine, Herzog wants to show the wholeness of the worlds in which his subjects inhabit and enfold.

Class reaches its end, but before we are dismissed, Professor Herzog leaves us with a quote from the late-medieval poet Thomas à Kempis, which he previously used in his short film Pilgrimage (2001):

It is only the pilgrims who in their earthly voyage do not lose their way, whether our planet be frozen or scorched: They are guided by the same prayers, in suffering, in fervor, and woe.

When he finishes reading the passage, Herzog eagerly tells us that it was not Kempis but he who wrote this text for his film. And finally we wonder whether this entire undertaking has been some kind of terrible, inspired fiction, one that paradoxically draws us closer to him.

“Ecstatic Truths: Documentaries by Herzog,” a twenty-two-film program of nonfiction films, runs August 12 through 18 at the IFC Center in New York.