Acclaimed German film director Werner Herzog talks about his most recent film Meeting Gorbachev, while also warning against trying to articulate the truth in precise terms.

Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan is a journalist and film critic.
Published date: February 10, 2019

The 2018 DOK Leipzig festival held a homage to the work of Werner Herzog, who perhaps needs no introduction. He has been described as one of the most influential German filmmakers of the present time and boasts a prolific career as a director. At the 2018 DOK Leipzig festival, Herzog not only presented his new film Meeting Gorbachev, but also shared his insights during a special talk dubbed Ecstatic Truths. (See the interview here).

Meeting Gorbachev by Werner Herzog, André Singer

The discussion of Herzog’s most recent documentary Meeting Gorbachev naturally took centre stage in the talk with Kristina Jaspers, the curator of the homage. During their conversation, Herzog appeared to show no desire to hide what some have called his «disappointingly warm» regard for the former USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The filmmaker praised the retired politician for his «integrity» and «long-term vision», noting that Gorbachev saw «things on his radar that are still intact today, like the Arms Reduction Treaty.»

Contrary to the popular anti-Russia sentiment palpable in Western media today, there seemed to be little hostility to the country in Herzog’s words. The director openly denounced the «demonisation» of Russia, which he stated as «utterly wrong», and expressed hope that the two won’t lapse back into «a new form of Cold War.» «Russia is a more natural and long-term ally to the West than, for example, China or Pakistan, India or Brazil,» he said.

Meeting Gorbachev is a portrayal of the Russian politician and his agenda and vision. But beyond and above the politics, Herzog intended to «look into the heart of this man.» In the documentary, we are shown another side of Gorbachev, as he reminisces about his late wife, whom he still dearly misses to this day.

«Russia is a more natural and long-term ally to the West than, for example, China or Pakistan, India or Brazil.»

Apart from being a man of poetry, Herzog is also a funny man. There is a hint of black humour in Meeting Gorbachev, as the film cuts in quick succession between epic funerals of the Soviet general secretaries following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. However, the black humour does not seem to lessen the gravity of the film. If anything, the comic part only draws attention to life’s irony and the numerous fiascos of the men of the bygone era.

Finding truth beyond the factual

During the talk, Herzog and Jaspers also revisited some of the director’s older works, including his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness, which explores the oil fields in post-Gulf War Kuwait ravaged by retreating Iraqi soldiers in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. «When Saddam troops were forced out, they set everything on fire,» explained Herzog.

«There was not a single oil well that was not burning. The entire country was burning. Seeing that on television every night, I had the feeling this is all wrong. It is not a political event, it is a cosmic event. This is a crime, not just a political crime, but a crime against creation itself.»

Herzog noted that he had «a grander view» of what the film should have portrayed; he wanted to emphasise the landscape’s cataclysmic strangeness begot by the devastating fires. He confided that Lessons of Darkness was one of the films where he chose to modify reality in such a way that it would more closely resemble truth.

«Facts do not constitute the truth. And that is a fundamental mistake many filmmakers are making.»

«It was all clear that we would not make a film that was completely fact-based. It was poetry-based. It was music-based. It was based on visions. […] From the beginning, it was clear that it is not about our planet – so unseen, so unheard of – that it can only be on a different planet, a science fiction film. During the entire film, you do not recognise our planet anymore.»

Lessons of Darkness. Director: Werner Herzog

The German filmmaker does not seem to falter in his determination to find truth beyond the factual. In a bid to find a cinematic language that has a deeper resonance with humanity, he is not hesitant to fashion reality, often resorting to stylisation and staging. Cinéma vérité was «the answer of the 60s» and is «a failure,» he said at the talk.

«Facts do not constitute the truth. And that is a fundamental mistake many filmmakers are making.»

He then warned against trying to articulate the truth in precise terms, but rather urging people to treat it with «a pair of pliers.»

«Because not only mathematicians cannot tell you what truth is. Philosophers don’t know either. The only ones who seem to know are the Catholics. They have the certitude of faith.»

The digitalisation of cinema

In addition to his filmmaking, Herzog and Jaspers also discussed the lesser-known aspects of the auteur’s work, including the use of his voice in films. His unwavering monotone, which never seems at odds with his intricate prose, unfetter the viewer’s curiosity for earthly, mysterious creations.

Herzog gave voice to a plastic bag in Ramin Bahrani 2009 short film

Almost a decade ago, Herzog gave voice to a plastic bag in Ramin Bahrani’s 2009 short film, following its journey in search of its lost maker. Herzog’s voice, which he claims to be somewhat stylised and staged, spurred an emergence of a number of impersonators. Some of those mesmerised by the director’s delivery even went as far as to make a short tongue-in-cheek film on the development of a special speech synthesiser, dubbed the WernAcular, which purports to transform the most dreary of voices into a powerful Herzog-esque one.

Herzog is a also man who can turn a rather commonplace conversation about the digitalisation of cinema into a more refreshing discourse, casting light on aspects that are vital to a documentary maker.

«The only ones who seem to know are the Catholics. They have the certitude of faith.»

Apart from the democratisation of the filmmaking process and easier access to the necessary tools of filmmaking, digitalisation brings the cinema back to the director, Herzog argued. It allows you «to take a handheld camera on your shoulder and walk between the actors, weaving into a choreography, as you feel in your heart to do what you have to do. And technology does not [matter] anymore. You are liberated from technology, the green screen and the motion control camera. […] It is wonderful that we are bringing the cinema back to where it really belongs, and it belongs to a filmmaker who is thinking, breathing and feeling, and has a vision.»


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Modern Times Review