The new box set “Herzog: the Collection,” released by Shout Factory, collects 16 of Herzog's films, presented on Blu-ray for the first time, from his 1970 debut "Even Dwarves Started Small" to 1999's “My Best Fiend." Herzog has 57 films to his name, of course—and counting—but these early works pulse with energy and strangeness, charm and power, gigantic ideals somehow being borne out of small budgets and limited resources by seemingly limitless passion and sheer force of will.
Meeting Herzog to talk about the collection, the 71-year old director is in a back room at Shout Factory, in a less-than-starry part of Los Angeles, where industrial parks contain secret creations and creators; with his reading glasses at hand, Herzog is passing the time between interviews autographing a number of the box sets or special orders.
Talking with Herzog about his early work can't help connect to his later work, his current work and his future work; Herzog has little time for rear-view mirrors, but at the same time knows that this set represents a powerful collection of his works: "When you look at the box set, it looks like a brick. Like a piece of rock; I can stand on this piece of rock ..."
There's a great quote from George Orwell—by age 50, every man has the face he deserves. So I'm wondering if, by age 71, every director has the box set he deserves.
How do you look at this... totem... with your face on it?
I look at it with a certain amount of suspicion, because I don't like to do too much self-reflection. So I find it suspicious... and I'm not into the business of ever seeing an analyst; that would be the last thing. But let's face it: It's only 16 films, but it's some of the best I've ever done; I'd love to see 65, 70 of them out now.
Obviously, you're not someone who lingers or is too dedicated to the past, but you did have a chance to look at these and re-contextualize them.
I would never watch it on video, my own stuff—so I'm not sitting at home, watching my own films. However, I do look back sometimes when there's a retrospective and there's a completely new audience in a completely new country, for example—I want to know what the Brazilians, say, find so extraordinary about "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"; it's mysterious. I thought—Brazilians, they are wonderful, they are tactile, when they talk to you they would hold your wrist or grab you around the shoulder, and it would be sweaty and physical contact and all of the sudden there's a very quiet, deep-plowing film, "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"—and Brazilians go wild for it. Brazilian taxi drivers talk to me about this film. They recognize me because they have seen my photo, and I'm the one who has done "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser."
So what is it that makes that specific film so resonant to Brazilians?
It's mysterious, but I try to understand. For example, a film like "Heart of Glass"—very Bavarian, fairly slow moving; all the actors playing under hypnosis—but so deep under hypnosis that they open their eyes without waking up. And this is a film where Scandinavians go bonkers... they only want to talk about that film with me.
I have several questions about "Heart of Glass"—specifically, where the idea of hypnotizing almost all of the cast came from. When did that "Aha!" moment happen?
Well, it sounds like a circus gimmick when you look at the surface of it... know it: it is not. There's a story out there, about a village community that lapses into collective insanity, or into collective sleepwalking, or a collective trance—walking into a disaster that was clearly described and foreseen and yet they walk into it. And I thought "How do I stylize this kind of somnambulistic climate among the people there?" and all of a sudden, I thought "Why shouldn't they act under real trance?" And so I started to test: Could you act in a trance? Could you remember dialogue? Or would you learn dialogue under hypnosis, in fact, under hypnosis, much easier to memorize than not being under hypnosis?
All the hypnotized actors look like they've been drenched in the cold waters of the collective unconsciousness, dripping with not-quite knowing.
A strange observation—and it's true—but however, you should not forget that under hypnosis, you are not unconscious. Under hypnosis, you're like in a tunnel—but basically aware, still somehow, aware of the world. Under hypnosis there is no—I never did it, I was suspected of doing it to get better control of actors — I don't need that. I control even a wild beast like Klaus Kinski, a borderline mad, wild, paranoid madman—and I can control him and do good stuff with him. Under hypnosis, you would for example, lie; that's why it was never used in fact-finding criminal cases. Under hypnosis, the hard core of your character, of your existence, is still untouchable. If I ask you "Grab the knife that's right here on the table and murder your wife," you would say 'No." under hypnosis. You would say "No." So murder under hypnosis, it's a myth. A myth of literature.
But again, you get this great effect where it's like looking at these people through a clouded glass.
They look through the world like looking though an aquarium. It's like they're in an aquarium. Very, very strange. But the film has other illusions; when I look at the film, it is a film that has no precedents; it's so strange, it's so created by itself and out of itself, as if I were the inventor of cinema. That's a film more unique than any of my other films; it's strange, because I always felt like the inventor of cinema (for that film)...