Werner Herzog: “Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading.”


“I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.” (All photos by L.A. Cicero)

You’ve listened to the podcast, you’ve seen the movie. Now you can read all of Robert Pogue Harrison‘s landmark interview with Werner Herzog, on the subject of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrineover at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

A few excerpts:

ROBERT POGUE HARRISON: In your conversation with Paul Cronin in 2014, you say, “Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the internet or watch too much television lose it. […] Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.” Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

WERNER HERZOG: In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. I see three, four films a year, maybe sometimes a little bit more during a festival, but I do read.

“No, I have no nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person.”

And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.

Is that right?

It’s very, very clear. There’s no doubt whatsoever in me.

Why is that?

When you make a film, you have cameras and production money and actors, a lab or a post-production editing. Many, many layers of very vulnerable elements. When you write, you just write and there’s nothing else. It’s a completely direct form of expressing something.


There seems to be an interest, on your part, in people who have this nostalgia to reconnect with the earth. Is that correct?

No, I have no nostalgia. I’m not a nostalgic person.

I grew up in the very secluded in the mountains of Bavaria, with no real technology around. Of course, I was connected to the mountains. And then, more than anything else, traveling on foot. I would walk 1,000 kilometers for very existentially important reasons. I would travel on foot, not with a backpack — not with my household, a tent, and a sleeping bag on my back. I have understood, first, that it’s a solitude that is unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t done it. And second, a dictum: the world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.

“That’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness.”

You see a connection with the German poet Hölderlin, whom I really love more than anyone else. He traveled on foot and actually became insane. He traveled from Bordeaux to Tübingen or Frankfurt and arrived stark mad. He had a premonition of insanity coming at him, creeping up on him. He describes it in some of his poems in a very secretive form. Very, very tragic man. He understood the outer fringes of our language. He understood the essence of being solitary, of solitude.

I keep saying to the Rogue Film School students that The Peregrine is a book that is the absolute must-read piece of literature, because that’s how a filmmaker should see things: in loneliness. He or she or it should see the world with an incredible amount of human pathos and enthusiasm and rapture.

He sees with ecstasy. He has such rapture, such enthusiasm, such passion. That’s the way a filmmaker should see the real world and people and everything around us — with an enormous amount of passion. But that’s not all. Anyone can have this passion, but he writes in a language, with a caliber of prose, that we have not seen since Joseph Conrad’s short stories. That’s why I find this a very, very decisive book for anyone who wants to make films. By the way, for anyone who is becoming a writer, you will have to read it, learn it. Learn the whole book by heart.


Let me make a case for facts. A quote from Henry David Thoreau, in one passage from Walden where he says, “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”

I crave many other things beyond reality. It’s a very impoverished life if we go only for that. Even a good steak is a form of ecstasy sometimes. You shouldn’t dismiss that the primitive things of real, everyday life can acquire different quality.

And facts and ecstasy go together.

No, they do not marry.

They do not?

Truth gives you an illumination and transports you into a state where you step outside of your own existence in an ecstasy. You can, for example, find it in the writings of late medieval mystics — that kind of ecstasy. That’s the beauty of this book.

Read the whole thing here.

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