Interview with Werner Herzog


Last Saturday I conducted a phone interview with Werner Herzog, who was in San Francisco promoting his new film "Into the Abyss." He seemed in good spirits, that despite the fact that, as I learned later, the city had just undergone an earthquake.

I guess it was an "insignificant" earthquake (3.2 on the Richter scale), like the bullet he described as "insignificant" when he was shot in an on-the-air interview. He completed the interview unfazed and bleeding. And a mild earthquake must be business as usual for a filmmaker who perched on the rim of the crater of a volcano about to explode for his 1977 documentary "La Soufrière."

His new film is also about people living on the edge, though not necessarily by choice. Last year he interviewed inmates on Death Row at the state prison in Huntsville, Texas. In "Abyss" he focuses on one case, a triple murder committed in Conroe, Texas in 2001 by two 19-year-olds, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Burkett got a life sentence and will be up for parole in 2041. Perry got sentenced to death and was executed on July 1, 2010, eight days after Herzog interviewed him.

PK: It seems like you've been spending a lot of time in the abyss lately. You're in the abyss of time for you last movie. What is the abyss that we're going into with this film?

WH: Strange that you are mentioning it. I think it could of been the title of quite a few of my movies. I the last film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams,"


I'm looking into the abyss, into the recesses of pre-history, the origin of modern man. Many of my films, in a way, are trying to look vertically deep into what constitutes humanness, even with this kind of crime, this senseless crime. How shall I say? As monstrous as the crimes are, the perpetrators are still human beings.

PK: Did you get any closer to understanding how these two guys could go about committing such a heinous crime?

WH: Well, that was the fascination of the case. If you have a bank robber and somebody gets shot, yes, there was a plan, there was a purpose, there was  loot out there and you have a feeling yes, you can somehow follow the purpose, and I say in quotes, I have to apologize, "the purpose of the crime." In this case, what was fascinating, was the senselessness of the crime itself.

PK: So you're still bewildered why they did this?

WH: I think everyone who comes across this case is bewildered.

PK: I think it would be difficult to ask them about it because they both say they didn't do it so you can't really ask them why did you do it.

WH: Well, we have to be cautious about that. All the perpetrators knew... I told them in writing and then in person when I met them that this film was not going to be a platform for them to prove their innocence, which has been the platform of other films like Erroll Morris's  film  (1988's "The Thin Blue Line"). But, this was something different. But, still I would allow them to maintain their innocence in some moments, although I don't go deep into in case of Michael Perry. Perry, for example, confessed twice in such detail only a perpetrator would know. Actually, what the film doesn't mention is in the second round of murders there was witness there who testified who got immunity. In the huge amount of physical evidence of forensic evidence the question of guilt or innocence was really something the court of law decided, in my opinion, pretty correctly.

PK: So the question of innocence and guilt is irrelevant.

WH: It was irrelevant in this case, but the question of punishment was of course of interest. Should there be capital punishment or not? That is the lingering question behind all this.

PK: I thought there were many intense moments in this. From what I understand, you started smoking again while you were editing this film. Tell me that you have since quit.

WH: Yes, I quit and I had quit years before. The material was so intense that somehow we had to rush out every one and a half hours or so and smoke a cigarette. We were also only able to only work five hours and then we were spent. So, it is intense. During shooting, you don't have time to react because you have 50 minutes and you have to perform and you have to find the right tone. You have to go for it. There is no space for emotion.

PK: So, it's maybe even more intense or stressful than standing on the rim of a volcano waiting for it to explode.

WH: No, you can't compare these things, but I sense the place from which your question is coming. No, they are different movies; each one has their challenges.

PK: Do you remember what specific scenes made you want a cigarette?

WH: Watching the families of victims of violent crimes, for example. Or, looking at the man of the tie down team in the death house. I mean, they would strap you down in 10-15 seconds to the gurney and he, after 125 executions, he started shaking violently and crying without being able to stop. That becomes a sort of anti-capital punishment argument.

PK: One scene that I found startling is when Perry first comes in and I was wondering, "Who is this guy?


He seems very happy.Does he work here? If so it's so inappropriate for somebody to be grinning away like that in a place like this.  He sits down and starts talking to you and then you tell him you basically don't like him. It was a complete switch over. Was that a spontaneous reaction on your part?

WH: Just one second and then I'll get to the inmate.  Let me say one more thing about the tie-down man because he was an advocate of capital punishment and turned completely. He has such a big heart. He only has his experience, he can't even explain what happened to him. He's a Texan, I really like Texans and people like him. I'm not in the business of Texas bashing.

But when we are talking about the inmate who was executed eight days later, I'd been very, very straightforward and I told him the fact that your childhood was very complicated and destiny didn't dish out a real good hand of cards to you that doesn't mean I necessarily have to like you. So, my attitude is quite clear and I make it quite clear to the person.

PK: The other guy, Burkett; it seemed like you had a better rapport with him.

WH: Well, you had to find the right tone instantly. I'm so straightforward that they really liked me for it. A man on a life sentence or a man who is on death row can tell for miles away if you are a phony or not. You have to connect instantly.

PK: I guess as Samuel Johnson put the awareness that one is going to be hanged really focuses the mind. This is probably a morbid question, but did you have the chance or did you have any desire to watch Perry when he got executed?

WH: For God's sake no. That is the last thing anyone would want to see. Even though an execution is a state order, killing is somehow a public event, of course they have one or two media representatives, and they have some state witnesses and the family of the victims can send some representatives and the family of the perpetrator can send family. Although, it is a semi-official public event, I think nobody should ever ever ever see an execution.

PK: But the survivor, whose mother and brother were murdered, she said she actually felt a relief because a weight had been taken off her shoulders.

WH: I think she is very credible in what she is saying. But, right after that I asked her, "Would it satisfy you if the punishment had been life in prison without the possibility of parole?" she immediately agrees, yes, that could have been a credible alternative. And I like her for that. But a second later she says some people do not deserve to die [I think he means "live"]. She is torn in between and I just have to accept it as it is. As a German, and not being in favor of capital punishment and being a guest in your country, I would be the last one to tell the American people how to handle their criminal justice.

PK:In this Presidential campaign season that it's almost a non-issue these days and when it was brought up at a Republican debate, people applauded. Does this trouble you at all?

WH: You shouldn't ask my emotions. Let's separate that. When Governor Perry talks about capital punishment and defends that  and even the number of executions performed in Texas, he represents the mood of his electorate. There's no doubt, there's a vast majority in Florida, in Texas, that is pro-capital punishment. Please mind, I'm not in the business of Texas bashing or America bashing, but you have to see statistically the amount of executions is slightly declining. More and more states who would sentence you to death have a moratorium and would not kill you. So those are all good signs. Of course, when it comes to an election year, very essential questions are somehow swept to the surface. Capital punishment is one of the questions, but we have to accept it as it is. We have to understand capital punishment is not going to go away quickly. When you look at Florida, for example. It is so embedded in the mood of the electorate.

I do not have any voting power in the United States. I am a German citizen and I can vote only in Germany. Of course, it is something America has to settle itself. Let me add one more thing, America is not alone. Almost all populous nations in the world are pro-capital punishment: China, Pakistan, no Russia, just Japan did it, Iran. All the real populous nations in the world have it.

PK: One of the points you make is that while the crime is monstrous, the people themselves are not monsters. WH: The perpetrators, yeah, they are still human.

PK: Can you see the potential for murder in yourself? For example, I don't know how serious you were, but you did indicate that you wanted to kill Klaus Kinski when you were making "Fitzcarraldo" (1982).


WH: Well that's something different because as an individual, if a person as a private citizen kills someone else, yes it happens, but you have to face the consequences in the court of law right away. And that's the difference.

Now, let me address Kinski. Yes, Kinski and I, at the same time, unbeknownst  to each other, had magnificent plans to kill each other. Yes, it's big beautiful schemes that we had.  Of course we didn't do it. These things in fantasies are beautiful stuff for novels or screenplays, but there's something more serious behind it and that's the history from which I come. A different historical background, and that's the Nazis. The Nazis in Germany who had an excessive use of capital punishment parallel to euthanasia. You were worthless and would be killed off if you were insane. On top of it, the genocide of 6 million Jewish people. It's not even an argument, it's just a historical background and I define my historical background. America has to come to terms with this practice.

PK: All the presidential candidates are in favor of it. Ever since Michael Dukakis was ambushed by a question  about it back in 1988, nobody will say anything against it.

WH: Which only reflects how they respond to the mood to the sentiment of the electorate.

PK: In the film you investigate the world that the two guys come from. There's an underlying kind of violence everywhere in it and neither one of them had strong parental supervision or guidance. But when you were growing up weren't you kind of a like a wild kid yourself? You didn't have any real paternal guidance.

WH: Probably even more than these perpetrators because there was no presence of fathers at all. They were either killed in the war or they were prisoners of war. It was a wonderful time because as kids, we became self-reliant. But we didn't end up in crime, we ended up in all sorts of professions, in all sorts of lifestyles.

But, it's interesting that you are asking me because I asked death row inmates and people with life sentences, "How should we conduct our lives? How should we raise our children?" It always boils down to family values. I take it much more seriously now. It's not just what's happening in Hollywood movies, it's really serious life out there.

PK: You're going to be in a Hollywood movie pretty soon. You're playing a killer yourself. [he will be playing the villain in Christopher McQuarrie's adaptation of Lee Child's "One Shot." Tom Cruise plays the good guy].

WH: I don't know exactly what it is, we shouldn't speak about the role, but I enjoy acting as well. I do all sorts of things like staging operas and I run my own film school, The Rogue Film School, that I'm going to have in session fairly soon.

PK: January in Los Angeles, right?

WH: Yeah, you can still apply if you want. But you have to send me a written application and send me a short film and all sorts of other obstacles. You have to get into a mandatory reading list.

PK: How's the school going? Any up-and-coming auteurs?

WH: Well, I do it very infrequently and I haven't done it for an entire year now. Because I have done so many films and there was no hiatus in between. It's been a long time since I've done it.

PK: You say that your subjects find you and that you don't find the subject. How did this subject find you and is there any other subject knocking on your door right now?

WH: Well there's a couple of feature films that I'd like to do but they're not financed yet . And as a part of "Into the Abyss," but separate from that is a four part mini series for television on death row inmates, which is called "Death Row: The Death Row Project."

PK: How is the TV series different from the movie?

WH: Well they are shorter films. It has really the character of  a TV series. "Into the Abyss" is a theatrical film, which eventually down the line will be shownon TV as well. But "Death Row" is only for television and each film is a one hour program.

PK: The people that you interviewed: have any been executed?

WH: One is facing execution on November 9th. [I believe he is referring to Hank Skinner, who received a stay of execution yesterday] So, I really worry.

PK: When you talk to these people, do you form some kind of bond

WH: Not necessarily a bond. For example, the case of Michael Perry, who was executed eight days after my conversation with him, I tell him point blank within the first 120 seconds the fact that your childhood was complicated doesn't exonerate you and does not necessarily mean that I have to like you. There's no real bond. There's a bullet proof glass wall in between us. But I am straight shooter and they acknowledge it.

PK: There was a story just out in "The Guardian," did you see it? A woman who interviewed Perry after you did wrote a story about how upset Perry was because you said that. He said he was about to walk out of the interview. So it was kind of a risky question or statement to make...

WH: Yes, it could have ended our discourse within 120 seconds but actually as it turned out he wanted me back. After all that he wanted me back and wanted to continue. And that's fine, you have to declare yourself. You do not have to be chummy with them or make them heroes, outcast heroes, or anything like that. In this case, I had the feeling he was the most dangerous person I have ever seen in my life.

PK: And you've interviewed other murderers also?

WH: Yes, but among all of those...and he looks like a kid, like a lost kid. He could be the best friend of James Dean. And he somehow touches your heart in a way. But at the same time, my instincts tell me he was the most dangerous of all of them that I've met.

PK: You had sort of a visceral sense?

WH: I have no argument, I only have my instinct.

PK: They've been pretty good over the years. But I would say Burkett seems even more sinister.


WH: No, he looks intimidating, he's big, he can be threatening, I'm fairly certain of that. But, I wouldn't be afraid of him.

PK: He's kind of like Clint Walker, a big, Texas guy. Didn't you say that he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood or something like that?

WH: He denies it and that's why the film doesn't make any fuss over it. Although, in the car that he took possession of, he put signs on it, a big sign  "Gauge," like 12 gauge shot gun, on one side, on one side window "AB" and on the other side window "23." I asked him, "Mr. Burkett, does ‘AB'  signifie that you are a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and am I right in the assumption that the "23"  signifies the 23rd letter of the alphabet, ‘W,' for White Supremacy?" He fell silent for a moment and he said, "No, no, I have no affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood." I left it at that and it's not in the film. You see, he still has an appeal going on for a re-trial and the last thing I would like to do is include certain suspicions that are not very viable I would make him look very bad.

PK: I think you said somewhere that if he gets a re-trial and they find him guilty, they can also sentence him to death instead of life in prison.

WH: Well, there's a danger out there because if there's a re-trial, they start at square one. The district attorney has made it clear, if there's a re-trial, the death penalty is what he is going to seek. There is a danger for Burkett. He has a life sentence right now, but if he gets a re-trial, he may be sentenced to death.

PK: But you definitely think he's guilty?

WH: I'm not in the business of guilt or innocence. That is the task of a court of law and that is the task of a jury.

PK: One of the unsettling aspects of the film is Burkett's wife. She seems like a sensible, well-adjusted person but she seems to believe that he's innocent. So much so she married him while he was in prison. Do you think she is delusional?

WH:I do not want to judge, but you see, I have read 800 pages of the case file of all the first statements of witnesses and forensic evidence and I have read the entire transcript of the entire trial. Many hundreds of pages and more and I think, I believe, the question of innocence and guilt has been settled by a court of law properly.

PK: It sort of brings up a subject that could almost be another movie -- of how women become infatuated with prisoners, especially death row prisoners. Do you have any insight into that?

WH: It's mysterious. We have to take it as it is. I think some of these relationships are not disingenuous. Melissa Burkett, the wife of Jason Burkett, is very outspoken and very intelligent, has helped for years in formulating his appeals. It's very hard to judge when it comes to love. It's something very, very mysterious between men and women and thank God it exists.

PK: They never have any physical contact, except indirectly.

WH: Well, they can hold hands, but with a guard sitting right at the table with them.

PK: It seems you are always coming back to the subject of America; it seems to be a fascination.

WH: Well, Americana. In a way, yes.

PK:You spent some time in your youth in Pittsburgh;  I guess that was your first exposure to the US. How would you explain your fascination for Americana?

WH: Well, I live in America, I live in Los Angeles,  because I fell in love and I married a wonderful woman and I'm  married to an American citizen. My wife is American, so I owe America a lot. It's been good to me. In the early years, when I was in Pittsburgh, I found the best of the best, who would pick me up from the street from a situation where I was practically homeless and I just saw the best of the best of America. I'm fascinated in looking at Americana with the eyes of someone who comes from outside and I look at it with great sympathy.

PK: Can you talk about your upcoming features? Are they on American subjects?

WH: One of them, yes. but all of these projects are in gestation and they are not financed yet so let's not talk about it.

PK: Everybody I told I'd be interviewing you were envious. It seems you've become some kind of mentor or guru for a lot of people. Are you comfortable with that and why do you think people are so drawn to you?

WH: No, I am not in the role of the guru, but I understand why there is such a huge avalanche of young people who are trying to find guidance in how I am doing things. This is why I am doing my Rogue Film School so I can  try to give them organized answer.

PK: Also, one thing that has become a cultural icon of sorts is your voice. Are you amused by the fact that your voice has become so recognizable?

WH: Well, It has somehow evolved like this because I have been in acting roles, I have done voiceovers in my own documentaries, I have been the voice of the plastic bag in Ramin Bahrani's film,


I have been a character in the Simpson show.


I like to do acting as well, but I try to limit it to things that I'm good at.

PK: Do you think you'll appear in any more of Harmony Korine's movies, for example?

WH: It depends on what he's going to do and whether I'll fit in but he's a very, very talented young man and I like him. It really depends on what he's planning next. As you know, I'm going to be in a Hollywood production, but it's not just my voice, it's going to be my face as well.

PK: Are you a little daunted by that?

WH: No, I enjoy everything that has to do with cinema and that means directing, or writing, or acting, everything, you just name it.

PK: Have you met with Tom Cruise and discussed...

WH: Yes, but don't make too much of a fuss about it, it's a small part and the film is much bigger than me. It's a Tom Cruise movie.

PK: Well, that may change.

WH: It's a Chris McQuarrie movie.

PK:: One last question, the ecstatic truth, how does that apply to this movie?

WH: For that we'd need another 48 hours.

PK: Or I could apply for the film school. Speaking of which, what are you reading these days? One of your provisos for the film school is that  filmmakers should always be reading.

WH: I can recommend a book that I have gotten into, "The Peregrine"


by a British writer named J.A. Baker, about watching Peregrine falcons. But it is a phenomenal, phenomenal book of great poetry and intensity of observation. One of the finest books I've read in many, many, many years.

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