An Evening With Werner Herzog

I got a chance to see Werner Herzog speak in Chicago this week and needless to say, I was pretty excited about it. And after everything was all said and done, it was definitely worth the wait. Only about half the attendees made it into the auditorium to see him speak and as fate would have it, my friend and I were the last two people to get in.

Strangely, because we got stuck in the last second folding chair section on the side of the auditorium that they usually throw together for people late to church on Christmas, I somehow ended up sitting right next to where Herzog was waiting to be introduced. This meant that I got a chance to speak with him, albeit a brief exchange that mostly consisted of him saying things to me and me nodding dumbly in agreement. Still, it counts and I can say I met Werner Herzog, so that’s a life goal I can check off my list.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Herzog, he is a German film director known for films like ‘Grizzly Man,’ ‘Fitzcarraldo, ‘Rescue Dawn‘ and ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams.’ Certainly heralded first for his contributions in cinema, people forget that he is also an author and often stresses the need for people to read more, regardless of what their pursuit or goal in life may be. So, that allows me to draw a bit of relevancy to the post. As a film director though, Herzog is pretty much the profession’s equivalent of a honey badger, pegged as a bit of an eccentric iconoclast and admittedly, his life often sounds like complete insanity.

He was once shot in the middle of an interview by a crazed man with an air rifle, but continued the interview unfazed even though he was still bleeding. He once saved Joaquin Phoenix’s life by pulling him out of a gasoline filled car after Phoenix wrecked his car in the mountains and then in a daze tried to light a cigarette. Herzog quickly disappeared after the incident because he didn’t want to make a fuss, like he was some sort of Bavarian superhero who spends his weekends joyriding around Northern California saving reckless celebrities. In his talk, he spoke about walking across Africa when he was only seventeen and mentioned that it was only after his eighth consecutive time in an African jail that he really started to understand people. A quality that he says allows him to be a good director, especially when approaching the subjects in his documentaries.

That’s just a small sampling of Herzog’s life and if anything, it backs up his claim that life experiences should come before formal education in order to produce effective and inspired art. His films, like his life, are always interesting, even when they meander or run a bit on the long side (which admittedly they all do). And while Herzog is sometimes unfairly dismissed as a crazed anarchist, people forget that even though he may be a bit crazy, he fiercely protects the integrity of his subjects and never plays anything for shock value or at their expense, which is a trait that I definitely admire about his work.

The talk he gave was great and very similar to his movies. Funny, inspired, a bit on the long side, but always worth the price of admission. We got some insight when he talked about how he really didn’t care for the infamous ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe‘ documentary, that he gets shot by Tom Cruise in next year’s crime thriller ‘Top Shot‘ (possible spoiler?) and that he thought ‘Grizzly Man’ subject Timothy Treadwell was a bozo for how he conducted himself. We even got to see the first ever screening of the first part of his ‘Death Row‘ miniseries (part one was a portrait of death row inmate Hank Skinner) that will be airing on television later this year. A sort of offshoot of his recent documentary, ‘Into the Abyss.’ All in all, a cool experience.