Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School, the experience part II

Day 1: Read, read, read, read.

I wanted to be as far forward as possible to be able to see Herzog's every muscle move in his face, to observe every movement, to completely concentrate and to listen. My notepad quickly opened, my pen at the ready, my only purpose to be attentive and to write down everything he uttered.

Werner entered the front of the room and took control of the microphone, a screen hung behind him and a projector fanned in front of him. Two speakers dangled either side of him. He welcomed us and began with his Rogue Film School mantra, ‘I will say this again, if you want to be a film director you must read, read, read, read.’

Forge, steal, pick locks...

Werner launched straight into his European Rogue Film School by delving into two topics advertised on the website: lock picking and document forging. However, he counselled that he was not trying to encourage illegal activities, but as a filmmaker one had to be prepared to step across the borders. 'Film school,' he stated, 'will not teach you that we have a natural right as filmmakers to steal a camera or steal certain documents.' He reminisced upon the stealing of a camera whilst at Munich Film School on which later he shot Fitzcarraldo, amongst others. Werner took out and passed around a brochure explaining how to pick locks. He recalled picking the locks of various summerhouses around Germany when he decided to walk around the country’s border, taking shelter in these rarely used homes in his quest to connect with his country. 'Patience is required' he informed us, 'as is being tactile.'

Moving on to the forging of documents, Werner recounted one experience during the filming of Fitzcarraldo in Peru in 1981. Whilst having difficulties with the local authorities in a remote part of the jungle, a wharf that had served as a port for the ship in the film had been attacked many times and often burnt to the ground due to an ongoing border war. Military coups kept popping up, soldiers would fire at them and Werner could not move on with his filming further down the river. So he explained how he went up to the military camp to speak to the commander in order to allow him to pass.

The commander asked to see a permit in order to let him continue on his way up the river. Werner said he needed to return to Lima in order to fetch it. 'This story was an entire fabrication', he roared above the laughter. Of course he did not have this document so upon his return to Lima, Werner forged the document whilst stamping the parchment with any stamps that he could find including a couple of German ones he had with him plus the addition of two fake signatures for that extra authentic aesthetic look.

Upon his return to the camp Werner showed the document to the commander who promptly stood up, adjusted his uniform, clicked his heels, saluted and instructed him he could move on. ‘Be street smart in filmmaking,’ he wryly commented to us. ‘Be prepared to do unusual things, it is encouraged.’

A hushed room, it’s silence merely broken with the deft tones of scribble, scribble, scribble. Already swept away by his insights, with a wrist writing evermore furiously than a bush fire in a gale, a grin pinned between my ears showed no signs of abating. Looking around the room it seemed I was not the only one enjoying this experience.

Sound Sound Sound

Now onto the more serious side of filmmaking, Werner began with a topic that seemed to surprise most in the room: sound. Yes my fellow filmmakers and Rogues, sound. Werner showed us the first of the films he had selected from our entries as examples of work that were open for him to constructively criticize, a film called Traum im Traum. It was an animation with specific attention to detail in the sound and a simple story aimed at children. Werner spoke about the art of being a boom operator and in doing so how I thanked the angels of film. He reiterated how boom operators move and how they are aware of the movement of the camera. Perched in a type of figure that resembled a cross between a rave dancer and a praying mantis, he adopted the pose of the lesser-spotted boom operator. 'It is a very important craft', he stated to us. He continued over the course of the morning to delve into the importance of a director paying attention to sound, how important collecting wild tracks is and how important it is to build up a catalogue of sounds. Werner spoke about the intensity of recording ambiences. Sound is a particular type of awareness and you need a cornucopia of sounds. He concluded by announcing that he really likes fanatical sound recordists! Before I could don my Che Guevara sound recording outfit he roared, ‘Bring life into your films through sound.’ This is cinema heaven, I thought.

Music, admitted Werner, is his other great passion. ‘Establish a feeling for space’ he told us, ‘do not just use the panning of a camera in order to achieve this, you can also use music.’ Sometimes, he confided, he has the music before he has the film. This was the case in Fitzcarraldo, in White Diamond and, more recently, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Werner spoke of the pace of the music whereby he insists in sitting in the studio live room with the musicians from where he can direct the flow of the music.

Not a festival of placid admirers

Although easy to gasp in wonderment in his stories and be floated down the enchanting stream of his enigmatic presence, not in any way was this a Werner Herzog festival of placid admirers. I imagined him to be in some cauldron surrounded by over affectionate yet ravenous people all wanting their share of him. Scrutiny and questioning from my fellow Rogues was relentless. He was questioned intensely and under minute detail over some of his filmmaking decisions throughout the course of the seminar. In this instance the well-informed crowd laid siege to the scene in Grizzly Man where Herzog is seen listening to the tape of his protagonist’s death. We do not hear the audio on the tape, a decision that was scrutinized by the Rogues. Werner maintained his principles that he wished to preserve the dignity of somebody’s death. A vacillating debate enthused over the use of intense footage in today’s films, for example in showing executions on the Internet. ‘YouTube has a dangerous side of revealing everything. Develop your own framework of values.’ There, the principles of Herzog, the man himself, appeared to be laid bare. He took the comments in his stride yet respectfully countered what others were saying. Werner re-iterated that this was his way of doing things and that he was in no way preaching to us as to how we should make our films. On the boundaries of what you show in documentary film Werner asked us to think about how far do we go? What do we show? He summed up by reminding us that we must form our own ethical perspectives, as he is not Moses.

'We should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings.'

On finding characters for documentaries he offered some interesting insights into working on the fly. Werner sees a quest in someone who pops out from the screen and becomes very human. 'How do you introduce a person within a film', he questioned? It is a very difficult thing to do. The film Encounters at the End of the World was made on the run. There was no time to properly research much yet he managed to persuade the seemingly un-persuadable. ‘There is no art of persuasion, only knowing the hearts of men,’ he explained. ‘People who touch you will make you want to listen to them,’ he stated whilst looking far beyond us into perhaps an abyss of experience.

Much is staged in his documentaries he told us; they are feature films in disguise. We search for a deeper truth in cinema. There is, ‘an ecstasy of truth – something that is beyond the sheer facts, something that points beyond the image itself. Guide the audience into this. These are moments of illumination.’

With that he galloped into yet another provocative statement, that he is ready to do battle with the cinema verité believers and will do so at any opportunity. ‘Cinema verité is the cinematic answer to the 60s’ he professed. ‘Today we have a huge onslaught on reality. Everything can be manipulated. Realities have shifted to the reality of brands and virtual imaginations.’

Werner implored us to move away from the facts and do something different. In Werner’s case it is through the ecstasy of truth. ‘Move away from sheer facts as they do not contain truth. Only truth can create illumination.’ With a battle cry against those who follow cinema verité Werner rallied with passionate eyes, ‘we should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings. Seize the opportunity to be a filmmaker. You are not a slave to be fact based. We are filmmakers. We shape the film. We are not slaves to the material. We are directors. Go absolutely and completely wild.’

Filled with the ecstasy of the truth and drunk with the desire to really go wild, stomachs rumbled, lunch beckoned and our first break of the day came as if it had been days since that early breakfast.

How do we beat the TV system?

During the afternoon session we were introduced to the real world, specifically personified by Werner’s friend and Channel 4 commissioning executive, David Glover, to talk to us about how to obtain a TV film commission. I could see why Herzog was a friend of this seemingly standard TV commissioner when Glover fired straight into a question for all of us; 'how do we beat the system? How do we make the types of films that we want whilst adhering to the broadcasters demands? Some documentary proposals felt like essays’ he said, 'make sure the proposition is clear and appealing.'

Werner asked him what he looks for in a character. Glover responded that he had no real answer; it is his deepest fascination of a character that lures him towards him. Something hits him hard in the guts that this film has to be made. In feature films it is similar, never leave the protagonist out of sight.

With the concept of being illusionists fresh in our minds, the illusion of time played with our notion of the time. 6pm had come to pass and the end of a memorable long day resonated with the many echoes of that distinguished Germanic voice. My notebook bulged with words from that intense mind whilst my wrist ached from poorly trained frantic writings. The bar beckoned and with the fellow Rogues we unwound, mentally exhausted, whilst letting the information of the day settle with the aid of a second pint.

Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, 'The Great Flood', granted him a place at Herzog's Rogue Film School, earlier this year.