Thursday, April 27---Werner Herzog, the veteran German director who is being honored at the Festival with the San Francisco Film Society Directing Award, is known for his dry wit and deadpan humor. Both were in evidence at the packed-to-the-rafters tribute held last evening at the glorious Castro Theater, one of the countries' oldest and most elaborate movie palaces.
Herzog, who began his career in the 1970s as part of the New German Cinema, which included such film icons as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff and Wim Wenders, is behing honored for his wide-ranging career. Herzog is one of the rare filmmakers who have successfully made both narrative features and documentaries imbued with a special aura of invention and observation.
The evening began with SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat being visibily moved by the over 1500 people who were packed into every available seat of the enormous movie palace. "It is amazing to see a whole sea of faces", Leggat exulted. "Well, you know why you are here....."
The festivities began with a clip reel that included some of the highlights of Herzog's immensely prolific career. Herzog's career began in 1968 with the release of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL, a seminal film of the new German cinema movement. Other highlights have included AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972), THE MYSTERY OF KASPAR HAUSER (1975), a remake of the FW Murnau silent horror classic NOSFERATU ) (1978) and the epochal FITZCARRALDO (1982), for which Herzog won Best Director honors at the Cannes Film Festival.
Herzog has made documentaries throughout his career, including such well regarded films as THE ECTASY OF THE WOODCUTTER STEINER (1972), BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982), LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY (1997) and MY BEST FIEND (1999), a portrait of Herzog's iconic lead actor Klaus Kinski, a notorious enfant terrible of voracious appetites and uncontrollable moods.
Now in his late 60's, Herzog has never been more prolific, having made 10 films in the last five years alone, including last year's success d'estime GRIZZLY MAN, a devastating portrait of wilderness activist Timothy Treadwell who was killed by the grizzly bears that he so coveted. The film won Herzog the Directors Guild of America award for Best Director, as well as the New York Film Critics prize as Best Picture.
Following a showing of film clips from his 40 year career, Herzog was joined on stage by veteran film critic David Sterritt, the chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and chief film critic of the Christian Science Monitor.
Commenting on the laudatory introductions by Leggat and Sterritt, Herzog reminded the audience that he was not a sensation in his early career. "When AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD first came out, I was introduced in a theater in Germany, and discovered seven brave people sitting in the audience", Herzog offered, in his downbeat, deadpan style.
Asked by Sterritt who his early film influences were, Herzog shared that he was very unaware of cinema while growing up in an isolated mountain village in Bavaria. "I did not see my first film until I was a teenager, and it did not really impress me", Herzog said. But in his late 20s, after a failed career as a novelist, he turned to film as a mode of expression, unsure if anyone would be interested in his unusual take on human nature.
"My core belief is that life and nature are not in harmony, but thrive in chaos", Herzog explained. He was hilariously contemptuous about New Age spiritual philosophy that posits a divine order and benevolence in the universe. "New Age thinking makes me want to jump off a bridge", Herzog offered.
Asked if he sees a lot of new films now, Herzog said that his demanding travel and filming schedule does not leave time to go to the cinema. He added that he finds most new films "to be very shallow or steeped in violence, which I hate and I think is very harmful to society." However, he has become an avid supporter of viewing films on DVD. He particularly noted a current interest in the films of Bresson, who he described as a "pure artist of human dimension."
Asked by Sterritt what he is currently working on, Herzog said that he has as many as six films in various stages of development. He is currently editing his first American studio film, the Vietnam era war film RESCUE DAWN, which at $26 million is his largest budget ever. The film, which shot in Thailand over the summer, stars
Christian Bale as a fighter pilot who is captured when his airplane crashes in Laos during the Vietnam War. The film will be released in the Fall.
When queried about what he is most proud of his in his long and varied career, Herzog offered that he is "most proud of the integrity that I have been able to bring to my work, without having to compromise to anyone else, in my pursuit of what I call the ecstacy of truth." As a filmmaker and as a man, Herzog is an inspiration and a worthy role model for young filmmakers of every nationality.
The on-stage interview was followed by a screening of Herzog's intergalatic phantasmagoria THE WILD BLUE YONDER, which uses a combination of footage from NASA space flights and unbelievably lush underwater photography below the Antartica ice by Henry Kaiser, to tell a tale of science fiction fantasy of visiting alients to planet Earth. Herzog's answer to Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is one wild trip.