Werner Herzog’s VFF talk was as impressive as the director’s legendary career

by | Nov 7, 2016 | ART

“There’s a world out there that defies our comprehension.”

“There’s a world out there that defies our comprehension.”

For those unfamiliar with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, this is a great thought to begin with.

It is an observation that extends through much of his work, long and wide, whether it be the newly unveiled (and incredibly captivating) footage found throughout Into The Inferno (out on Netflix now), the brutal muscularity of Fitzcarraldo or the beautifully connective ancient artistry in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I myself have experienced a small few of Herzog’s films, but within those, the drive exuded toward this incomprehensible world was strong. And it’s no surprise then, that within and outside of his films, do we hear Herzog speak often of the intangible, of dreams and of beautiful grand hopes.

He also referred to a vehemence; out of which his ideas and inspirations came. It was this undeniably strong but natural, even universal, intensity that he said, before an awestruck crowd at this weekend’s Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, was very instrumental to his work.

Yet, for all this intrigue and mystic pensiveness, his tone and bearing were less grave or serious as one could expect.

Inciting much delighted applause after his readings from various sources (mostly his own, also Virgil’s Aeneid and J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine), our noise was both a giddy excitement at hearing his wryly infamous inflections in person and a delight at listening to these thoughts that he in his much-followed expression, deemed most suitable to highlight in our two hours together.

Indeed, the joy of an event such as this appearance is to try to glean a bit of the emotions involved in the person’s life and hearing some of Werner’s personal journal’s excerpts gave as good a taste as anything else could for imparting the feel of situations we’ve seen and known him to have been in.

And to speak of his writing is to speak of reading, and this he did quite a bit. He even, to a few quiet chuckles, said that he thought his books would almost certainly outlive his films. Werner also expressed some certainty in this way.

“If you don’t read, you’ll never be a great filmmaker…you’ll be mediocre at best.”

This was admittedly aimed at the young generation of filmmakers that he hoped were within his audience Saturday afternoon. And his lengths about books and their importance didn’t stop there as once or twice the moderated topic shifted to technological impact on and interaction with humans, the subject of another of his recent efforts entitled Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.

Herzog watching a scene from ‘Bad Lieutenant’ during his VFF lecture – Image via Daryl Tankersley

Stressing the importance of a learned grasp of narrative elements and the structures of story, Herzog did however say that rule-breaking was common to his practice. He also threw out the stipulation that burgeoning director X should be able to read Latin. We were mid-chuckle when he then posited his doubts as to any one’s such ability under The Paramount Theatre’s roof.

Drawing on his own experiences, Herzog was adamant that two of the best avenues for self-improvement were reading and travel. By foot. He spoke of the grittiness of life on the road, but also of the moment-to-moment joy of that way of traveling that affords more wealthy opportunities that eventually lead to a sharper edge for dealing with one’s problems.

And after watching Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the terribly arduous production of Fitzcarraldo, it is evident that Herzog has met and overcome myriad obstacles during his seventy four years.

It seemed to me that, not just due to his insistence on contextualizing the chosen clips from his films we watched, Herzog is quite keen to ensure the proper arena for one’s participation with his work. It was interesting to hear his answer to the question: “Which of your films was the most personally significant/impactful for you?”

With a shift in his seat he told us that question makes him uncomfortable, because although “they’re all great” (that garnered an audible reaction) within the context of their respective times and people and situations involved that they were each the most impactful.

I’m glad I was able to hear the answer to that question outside of the context of me asking it, and not only because it left something to the imagination. I feel this is very in keeping with Werner’s own ways, as his words during those tech-driven digressions seemed to acknowledge but keep at an apprehensive arm-length the notions of quantum science applied to some of these mysteries of feeling, of life.

After watching Into The Inferno just hours before I drove to Charlottesville for this fantastic discussion held by the Virginia Film Festival, I was again (as with all his other films I’ve seen) so compelled by the magic and mythical spirit of its photography and of its subject matter.

And now thanks to this prestigious annual festival was I, and perhaps, were we, able to connect the spirit of this man’s intentions with his character himself.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at BradKutnerNPR@gmail.com

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