Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Aimless Reading: The H's, Part 20 (Werner Herzog)

Herzog on Herzog
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Herzog, Werner
Cronin, Paul, Ed.
Herzog on Herzog

I purchased this book of interviews with Werner Herzog at St. Mark's Books in NYC. I probably bought it five or so years ago. I would say it it was about ten years ago that I first encountered Herzog. I think someone recommended Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Beginning with the opening shot of that film, I became a faithful devotee of the work of Herzog.

Not long after that, he came to the George Eastman House in Rochester to introduce a newly restored print of Stroszek. He said that until then he had not believed in restoration on principle, that once a work of art was completed it became separate from the artist, who no longer had any interest in it, but that the restoration group at Eastman House had convinced him otherwise. They had told him that once the work was complete, it no longer belonged to the artist and that restoration of film was necessary to preserve it for the culture to whom it rightly belonged. Fortunately for us, he bought it, and we got to see a beautifully restored print of the film.

Afterward he answered questions for an hour or so. Most memorably, a woman stood up in the balcony and said she felt that the film misrepresented the experience of German immigrants to the Midwest, that many Germans that had come to the Midwest were not poisoned by the false promise of prosperity, but in fact lived the American dream and ended up making the Midwest what it is today.

I loved Herzog's answer.

He responded in a very sincere and patient tone that the film was not about the German immigration experience per se. It was about three Germans who immigrate to the Midwest, that it was their story, not the whole story of German immigration. He said it seemed this seemed to be a very personal issue, one that may have clouded her ability to see the film for what it is. He then devilishly suggested that she see the film again someday and try to imagine that instead of moving to Wisconsin the characters move to Canada. Ouch.

I remember stepping out to the lobby to go to the bathroom in the middle of the film and seeing this drop-dead gorgeous blonde sitting alone in the lobby. She was the kind of gorgeous that you can't stop looking at, but have to keep turn away from because you are afraid it will burn your skin or eat you alive. Of course, it turned out to be Herzog's wife.

from Herzog on Herzog

I often ask myself how I would like my work to be perceived. I would prefer that the films are seen rather like the work of artisans of the late mediaeval times, people who had workshops and apprentices and who never considered themselves artists. All the sculptors before Michelangelo considered themselves stonemasons; no one really thought of themselves as an 'artist' until maybe the late fifteenth century. Before that they were master craftsmen with apprentices who produced work on commission from popes or Burgermeisters or whosever. This reminds of the story that I speak of with Heiner Muller in The Transformation of the World Into Music. After Michelangelo had finished the Pieta in Rome, the Medici family forced him to build a snowman in the garden of the family villa. He had no qualms about it; without a word he just went out and built the snowman. I like this attitude and feel there is something of absolute defiance in it.

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