Holding on to the magic

Thomas von Steinaecker on Werner Herzog – Radical Dreamer

by Jennie Kermode

Werner Herzog - Radical Dreamer
Werner Herzog - Radical Dreamer

Thomas von Steinaecker discovered the work of Werner Herzog very early in life, he tells me, when he was in his teens, and he has never looked back. As a filmmaker he has a strong record of his own, in documentary and, particularly, in a sort of cinematic portraiture, which is the approach he uses in his latest work, Werner Herzog – Radical Dreamer. It’s a style well suited to exploring the work of a creative artist who is anything but conventional and whose work cannot easily be slotted into a standard documentary frame. Thomas’ film is more interested in character, inspiration and theme than in providing a potted history of the great director’s work, and as such it’s a perfect complement to that work, which fans won’t want to miss.

“I watched Aguirre: The Wrath Of God very late at night because it wasn't shown earlier, either because it was too shocking or it was too artsy. And then from that moment on, I was electrified,” he tells me. “After that, I read one of his books, Of Walking In Ice, and that really caught me. From then on, I really followed his work. And the funny thing is that I grew up in the neighboring town, so I knew the mountains he climbed and the way he was talking in Germany. He has a very special way of talking and putting words, very Bavarian. And I knew all this from growing up in the same area.”

This local connection was an advantage when it came to making the documentary, he says.

“I wasn't a stranger to the countryside and to the mountains, and I could feel the same love and respect for the people there and the countryside – and ski jumping!”

We both laugh, reflecting on scenes which deal with the young Werner and his brothers building their own ski jumps as kids, some of them distinctly risky. Then he tells me how the documentary began.

“It was a year before his 80th birthday. I thought it was probably impossible that he would say yes, so why not write an email? It doesn't cost anything.

“I didn't think that Lucki [Stipetić], his brother and manager, would respond to that, but I thought, even if it's impossible, let's go for the impossible. And then, surprisingly, Lucki immediately answered and we had a long conversation on the phone and it immediately clicked. We discovered a lot of same interests and same points of view, and I told him about my view on Werner and how I would approach the film, and I guess he liked it. And if Lucki likes it, that's the first step you have to take to approach Werner.

“I think they were looking for someone who wasn't interested in the obvious or superficial way of looking at his life or being too interested in his private life, but really focusing on the essence of his work and also on the work he did in the ‘States. That was really important because everything after Fitzcarraldo, nobody in Germany really followed that. And not too many people know that he had this extraordinary career in the ‘States for a couple of years. I lived in the ‘States and there I rediscovered Werner's work that he did there, so that wasn't new to me. I loved his documentaries that he did there, Grizzly Man and so on, and Bad Lieutenant. So I guess that convinced him that my approach was the one he was looking for.”

However it’s approached, this is a vast subject. How did he decide what to include?

“It was clear that in the film there had to be five films,” he says. “His début, Signs Of Life, and then Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man and probably Bad Lieutenant. So that was clear, and that gave me pretty much the structure of the film. And, of course, the most difficult decision was what to leave out. It was really a hard decision to leave out Stroszek and The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser because in my point of view, these are really some of his best works. But it was clear that you can't tell the story of Werner Herzog without Klaus Kinski, and then you can't only touch the story but you have to tell it in great detail to understand this relationship. So one thing led to the other.

“It wasn't a clear decision to leave this out and keep this in, but it just happened after making the decision to focus on these five main films.”

There's a lot of material there that's just Werner talking to camera and explaining his own ideas. I ask Thomas how he balanced that, because I imagine that Werner could quite easily have talked for a whole film by himself.”

“Yeah, I think my approach is rather different from Werner's approach and I think that saved me doing this film. I knew what topics I wanted to hear about from Werner before I led the interviews. I very rarely just let the camera roll and saw what happened, because there wasn't just enough time and budget for that. “

There are some great contributors as well, and they’re spread across a huge age range so there'll be different people who mean something to different generations of people who've enjoyed Werner’s work. I ask Thomas how he got them all on board.

“Well, the German people, let me put it this way – one of the many striking things doing this film was how happy people were to participate. And that showed me how much they respect and love Werner. Like Wim Wenders. He was immediately on board. For past projects I tried to do interviews with him and I know how hard it is to get Wim Wenders because he is always so busy. And then the Hollywood actors, I mean, it's almost impossible to convince them to do an interview that's not promoting their own films. It was really shocking, in a good way, how willing they were to give these interviews.

“Immediately they said they would be prepared to do the interviews and the only hard thing was to find the right date to do them. That really shows you the respect they have for Werner.”

He's very much loved and admired, I agree, but as this documentary reveals, his work hasn’t always been well received or understood in Germany. He had a lot of struggles early on.

“Yeah, I think that's the precondition to tell his story, how extraordinary he was during that time. I think basically it's a story of someone who tries to do the impossible and who only follows his vision. This really is true from the very beginning. In the atmosphere of German cinema then, a figure like him was really unthinkable or impossible, but he was the right figure at the right time to show that things were possible that others wouldn't have dared to do.”

He talks about his passion for searching for truth within the film. Was Thomas worried about maybe taking some of the magic out of his work by exploring it?.

“Yeah, that's a very good point. I think it was very clear to me from the very beginning that I wanted to go into detail and show some background information that wasn't known yet. But never take away the magic.

“I spent a lot of time with him and during situations that weren't magical, like having dinner together and drinking beer. I think in a way that's a good thing, actually. He has remained a miracle to me. I think he himself is a miracle. He's like a figure from a fairy tale. Stuff just happens to him and he reacts to that, but he doesn't know why it happens and how it happens. He's just living a fairy tale. I know that he would be strongly opposed to that idea, but to me he's like a figure from a novel or from a fairy tale still.

“I think that's really a very positive thing after spending so much time together with him because most of the time if you meet some of your – I wouldn't say heroes, but someone you really admire – he or she loses lots of his magic. But that wasn't the case with Werner.”

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