In the more than 50 years since his first feature film, the director Werner Herzog has come to seem more and more like one of the existentially inclined dreamers who populate his work. Those adventurous and often ontologically fuzzy works include art-house classics like “Fitzcarraldo” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” as well as highly stylized documentaries like “Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and his latest, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin,” about the late travel writer. Herzog, who is 77, has also developed into a compellingly portentous on-screen acting presence, including as a villain in the Disney+ “Star Wars” spinoff series “The Mandalorian” — the latest twist in a career gloriously lacking in the mundane. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog said. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.”
A lot of your films deal with apocalyptic themes and imagery. At the risk of overstating things, what effect might something like coronavirus have on your — and our — imagination? That’s a good question. We may see another Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” — it’s the time of the plague in Florence, and everybody flees to the countryside into exile, and then the storytelling begins. So you may have the origin of imagination or culture. But I can’t predict how I’m going to respond to coronavirus. Everybody, in a way, will have to respond.
Are you anxious about it? No. It’s a question of discipline. You just anticipate what might come at you and be prepared even for, let’s say, a quarantine of the Hollywood Hills, where I live. You need to be prepared and logical and professional.
Your narration, in
for example, is famous for your descriptions of nature as impersonal and savage. The monumental indifference.
Why are you inclined to interpret nature that way rather than, say, in the more cosmically harmonious manner of the Dalai Lama? You interviewed him for
I advise you to go outside on a clear night and look out into the universe. It seems utterly indifferent to what we are doing. Now we are taking a very close look at the sun with a space probe. Look at the utmost hostility of the hundreds of millions of atomic bombs going off at the same time in its interior. So my personal interpretation of nature comes from taking a quick look at the stars.
How do you derive meaning from life if life is indifferent? Life is not indifferent. The universe is indifferent. But just trying, itself, is something I should do.
It always seemed so weird to me that you live in Los Angeles. You’re someone who believes in the almost spiritual importance of traveling on foot, and this is a city where no one walks. But that would be strolling or ambling. I’ve never been into that. I see how you are looking at me.
How am I looking at you? With bemused skepticism.
I didn’t mean to convey skepticism. You’ve talked in the past about your desire for your documentaries to
— or deeper truth — rather than what you’ve called “the truth of accountants.” Does anything about the need for ecstatic truth feel different now, at a time when even factual truth feels destabilized? I’ll make it very simple. My witness is Michelangelo, who did the statue of the Pietà. When you look at Jesus taken down from the cross, it’s the tormented face of a 33-year-old man. You look at the face of his mother: His mother is 17. So let me ask: Did Michelangelo give us fake news? Defraud us? Lie to us? I’m doing exactly the same. You have to know the context in which you become inventive.
Does ecstatic truth have any connection to morality? Invented truth or facts can serve a dubious purpose. What I do serves a purpose, and that is to elate us, to lift us up, to give us a sense of something sublime. Ekstasis in ancient Greek means to step outside yourself. All of a sudden, we have a glimpse of something deeper that might be behind the images. Something like an ecstasy of truth.
When I was in touch with you about doing this interview, you said you’ve had issues with articles about you being inaccurate. Do you remember that? Yeah, sure. Inaccuracy always happens.