Werner Herzog doesn’t dream, a condition that might explain his daunting output of films. He postulates that the nighttime void is compensated by ideas for films that light up like imaginary projections he can capture into rapid-fire scripts and screenplays. His latest feature film, Queen of the Desert, was written in 5 days with no revisions or edits – it floated before him like a waking dream.
For the last four days I have been part of the Rogue Film School a wandering and erratic workshop that brings together 50 hand picked filmmakers with one of the very great legends of film. The work begins with a session on lock picking, the patient art of which was ably demonstrated by his articulate and charming son Simon. The invitation to break through locked doors was justified by our “Natural Right to make films” (which sounds so much better in German) a right Werner argues overrides the petty confines of bureaucracy and law. Over the course of our school he recounted numerous stories of forgery and quasi-criminality that moved ships across mountains and enabled films to be made.
Werner describes himself as part of the first generation of German filmmakers who were able to forge a vision for film after the destruction of WWII. Theodor Adorno famously argued that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. For Werner poetry became the only answer to the barbarism of the world. In his eyes poetry is not only words on a page, but the scrawl of smoke from a volcano or the cryptic lines drawn by wandering feet on soil. Werner recounted how he walked the boundaries of Germany on foot after Chancellor Willy Brandt had (erroneously) told the population that the possibilities for reunification had been closed – a solitary attempt to heals the wounds of his country. A gesture he was able to reflect upon and share with people in North Korea, still caught in a divided country, during the making of his new film on volcanoes.
Werner is a deeply intuitive filmmaker. During the school he made the extraordinary (and perhaps unbelievable claim) that his recent film on the internet, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, was made without “any research”. While this may seem to defy the logic of the film’s subject matter it was also refreshing to hear how his love of classic literature could be as significant a form of inspiration for contemporary film making as google or wikipedia.
One amazing aspect of the school was the live collaboration between Werner and Ernst Reijseger who improvised a rough soundtrack to his upcoming film on volcanoes as we watched on. The found footage of Mount Eyjafjallajökull spewing forth black smoke morphed before our eyes into the emotive soundscapes we have come to associate with Werner’s films: all that was needed was the slow German accented voiceover of Werner musing on the power of nature.
Walking was a common theme for the workshop. For Werner travelling by foot puts you “in the world” and provides periods of necessary loneliness that allow films to germinate. Over the weekend he described many journeys by foot including the beautifully poetic gesture of walking from Munich to Paris to see his mentor Lotte H. Eisner for one last time before she died. The journey was urgent but he walked hoping to prolong her life by delaying his arrival.
The workshop was not without its own rogues of the Rogues. The required list of films that we had to watch and Werner’s personal selection of Rogue films to share came with a major blind spot. After three days of watching films made exclusively by men (mostly North American and European) we eventually rebelled and a passionate discussion broke out about diversifying our vision of film. Werner argued the identity of the director was irrelevant but was overrun by our demands to watch a film made by a woman. Catherine Fordham’s Consume, a sexual assault revenge fantasy, aptly demonstrated how female directors might show us different worlds. Promises were made to consider the reading and film list if another Rouge School is held.
The school had three main lessons: never complain, do the doable and take revenge. The first two came with such incredibly wild stories (a crew member, for example, cutting his own foot off with a chainsaw to survive a snake bite) they made complaining seem petty and the doable extraordinary. The last came with useful tips on small-scale sabotage and the destructive power of superglue.
The 2016 Rogue School was a very special chance to talk with Werner about how he makes film. It was also an amazing insight into how new artists, from a diversity of backgrounds, are picking the locks on filmmaking.