I've spent more time poring over media describing Werner Herzog himself than his body of work. Why does he fascinate me so much? Here is a man who has never compromised when it comes to his art.
This is a man who refuses to film on sets because the fake-reality of a set might influence actors to also act in unnatural ways. This guy basically refused any shortcuts or appeals to logic when demanding that an actual steamship be dragged up a mountain (by people) for the sake of a film, firmly saying no to special effects or miniature models. He would only let actors perform stunts he himself has attempted first. He challenged a fellow documentary-maker by taunting that he would eat a shoe if the other finally finished his project; when the documentary was finally delivered, Herzog kept his word, and filmed himself eating a shoe from beginning to end. He famously pulled a gun on one of his unruly actors (Klaus Kinski: a madman usually described in terms reserved for forces of nature) saying he would not hesitate to pull the trigger on the actor and then himself, if the scene was not shot.
For me, it is a reminder to never compromise on my art. In the sense that art is a protest against the tyranny of rationality, compromise must necessarily be seen as an abject betrayal!
Werner Herzog however is no Kubrick, rejecting refined aethestics for the truth of the mundane. Famously, he dislikes working with storyboards, and prefers to shoot scenes in real environments in an ad lib manner, keeping the camera rolling even through unexpected events. Sometimes, he even allows natives and non-actors to be in his scenes, either playing a role, or going about their own activities. Why? He believes in capturing what he calls "ecstatic truth" - a dimension of truth beyond the merely factual. A good example of what he means comes from a speech on "the Sublime":
After the first war in Iraq, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, the media—and here I mean television in particular—was in no position to show what was, beyond being a war crime, an event of cosmic dimensions, a crime against creation itself. There is not a single frame in Lessons of Darkness in which you can recognize our planet; for this reason the film is labeled “science fiction,” as if it could only have been shot in a distant galaxy, hostile to life.
This immediately reminds me of Dori Laub, noted Holocaust researcher, who speaks of a curious incident of historians and psychoanalysts reading through eye-witness testimony. In one incident, an eyewitness account recalled a fire in a concentration camp, stating four chimneys were destroyed in the fire. The historians were quick to dismiss this account as invalid because the facts showed only one chimney was on fire that night. Some others wanted to discount the seemingly-irrelevant incident completely, seeing as it played no significant historical role. However, the psychoanalysts saw the account extremely valuable for that very reason: it revealed the reflickering of hope in the survivor - a radical, unimaginable act for someone who has been exposed to the unspeakable rigor mortis of life in a concentration camp. Only by stepping outside the act of detached "accounting" of facts, could this truth about the resilience of the human spirit be realised.
I like this notion of "ecstatic truth" for another reason too. Too often, we feel as if routine is mundane, that the part of our lives not captured in selfies are insignificant, that the doldrums of boredom are a failure of the Universe to amuse and entertain us. The "ecstatic truth" here is that a bored adult and a newborn infant in the same room are having radically different experiences not because the worlds they live in are different, but because one sees only mundanity through jaded eyes, where the other sees only the magic of everything that exists for no reason but to exist. Stand before a tree for five minutes, and you would have witnessed five million avatars of the same tree. It is factually the same tree, but in reality a uniquely different tree in every moment.
Can we learn to see the "ecstatic truths" of reality instead of merely the optical surface of the world we inhabit? Herzog's life and works challenge us to do exactly that. Thanks Werner Herzog!