Picture of Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

He arrived via Department of Defense and Highway Patrol escort, to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas to do a Q&A after his film Grizzly Man and teach a two-hour master class. However, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog almost immediately undercut the idea of the master class, pointing out that he could not teach us anything except how to forge documents and cut through barbed wire fencing, explaining with his often-told story of forging a document to get through Peru and film Fitzcarraldo. This led him to speak about creativity and how the biggest threat to it is bureaucracy and the only way to beat bureaucracy is to feed it paper so as to distract it.

Herzog only had about an hour of material prepared and in this time he spoke of being inspired by Fred Astaire and being ashamed for liking someone with such an “insipid face.” He showed a clip of Astaire dancing with shadows from the film Swing Time, breaking down what the shot compositionally and emotionally meant to him as a filmmaker. He also briefly spoke of his time filming death row inmates for Into The Abyss. While speaking to one of the prisoners, Herzog told him “I can sympathize with you, but I don’t have to like you.” After finishing this part of his lecture, he opened the floor up to questions from the audience about filmmaking.

Topics of the questions ranged from his thoughts on motion capture and green screen filmmaking (he believes it makes actors better but directors worse) to how he dealt with losing his creative spark in the middle of a project (a problem he says he has never experienced) and everything in between. When asked about his editing process, he told the audience to always “go for the jugular” and condense everything because we only need the important things. This led him to speak about how when filmmaking and when finding films he likes, Herzog always wants to find condensed things that are exactly as much as they need to be. He then reminded the audience, as he had in the Grizzly Man Q&A, that he edited the entirety of the film in only nine days. Bragging like this often came multiple times while Herzog spoke, like how he was “fiendishly smart” for how he edited a specific scene in Grizzly Man so that he could have permission to use it.

Herzog at festival

Werner Herzog at the Hot Springs International Film Festival

One question really got to how to handle certain situations. A man said he had been filming his younger brother with severe autism for nearly 20 years when his brother was suddenly murdered. The murderer is now going through sentencing for the murder of two other people, but will not be going to trial for murdering the man’s brother. He asked how to make his film when it may take years before he can get access to the murderer—IF he can get that access at all. Herzog first talked about how his heart usually sinks when he hears a filmmaker shoots for such a long time, but with a film like this it is what is necessary. He then also told the man to just stop trying to get access to the murderer because he never will get it. In this one instance, the director didn’t take a lengthy amount of time to go on tangents about other stories about himself, but rather, from one filmmaker to another, gave real advice. The two kept eye contact the entire time and as an audience member, it was a breath of fresh air before diving back into questions like “How are you liking Arkansas?”

The master class received a standing ovation and Herzog then left the stage afterward, not to be seen again for the rest of the weekend. He departed as quickly as he had arrived, leaving the audience with a sense of awe from being so close to a filmmaker that has rebelled against the typical ideas of filmmaking for such a long time—as well as hearing him say that when he his down he likes to watch “crazy cat videos” on YouTube. It was incredible to hear the inimitable accent in person and even more incredible to hear what the man with that accent had to say.

About Jack Tideman