Werner Herzog is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Respected by critics and audiences alike, he is one of the leading figures in world cinema. He is also, coincidentally, insane in the most fantastic way possible.
Having made over 60 films to date, being oscar nominated and winning countless awards in the process, Werner Herzog is one of the most respected figures in modern moviemaking. He also has a reputation for being a little bit strange.
Here is just a snapshot of some of the craziest things Herzog has done, not always in the name of cinema.
Werner has an unlikely dinner:
Friendly bets can be a dangerous prospect. Sitting around with friends, bravado gets the better of you and you offer to do something stupid if you lose a bet; streak through town, dress in drag, or eating your hat. Or shoe, in Herzog’s case. That’s right, Werner Herzog bet fellow film director Errol Morris that he could not finish his movie on pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven. To be fair to Herzog, he really did want Morris to finish his movie, and hoped he would. Morris completed the movie. Most would back out at this point, content to allow the victor to gloat, safe in the knowledge that they helped in a small way, but not Herzog. No, Herzog had bigger plans. Bringing in fellow filmmaker Les Blank, the three got together to make Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), a movie which depicts exactly what you would imagine.
The full video is available on youtube, but the edited version is here:
As you can see from the video, he isn’t fazed at all by eating his own shoe, all he wants to do is talk about movies, like this is the same as every meal he has ever had.
This isn’t the only time Herzog has made crazy bets either…
A promise to actors.
During filming of another one of his films, Even Dwarfs Started Small, one of his actors caught fire (one of his film sets isn’t a safe place to be). Sensing the danger, and with little regard for his own life, Herzog threw himself at the actor, smothering the flames an putting them out himself. Obviously the cast were a little shaken, and were reluctant to carry on (the movie included scenes in which dwarfs hang from moving cars), so Herzog made them a typically mad deal. If they completed the film without injuring anybody else, he would throw himself on a very spiky cactus (It can’t help but be said this wouldn’t have made Herzog very safety conscious if he was going to be better off injuring someone). Of course he lost the bet, and like the man he is, Herzog leapt on that cactus with gusto. Afterwards, pieces of the cactus remained in his knee, and he doesn’t seem at all bothered by that in this video….
Herzog threathens to shoot his leading actor.
Herzog regularly worked with German actor Klaus Kinski –one of the best actors of his generation when paired with a great director (sadly he went on to make mainly B-Movie fare for the latter part of his career, and his private life is controversial, to say the least). Herzog brought the best out of Kinski on camera, and arguably the worst out of him off it. Rants like this were commonplace….
It’s safe to say, Klaus Kinski was a difficult man to work with. But even though the man makes Christian Bale’s rants look like a sweet little girl, it couldn’t end in murder, could it? Well if you are Herzog, it could. During the filming of the classic Aguirre, Wrath of God, Kinski threw a huge tantrum, destroying the set and demanding people were fired. In an interview with the late film critic Roger Ebert, Herzog remarked:
“I said to him, ‘I do have a rifle,’ very calmly. He could try to take the boat and he might reach the next bend of the river but he would have eight bullets through his head.” 
Luckily Kinski took the threat seriously, and calmed down for long enough to finish the movie without getting shot. Decades later, fate would have a way of turning on Herzog…
Herzog gets shot himself.
Of course it is not all one way traffic with Herzog and guns. Nothing is that simple in his world. During an interview with film critic Mark Kermode on the BBC Culture Show in LA, a shot is heard, and the interview is temporarily stopped whilst the crew and interviewee run for cover. Luckily for all, it was just an air rifle and as werner would later say himself it was “not a significant bullet”, but hey, what goes around comes around. It is hard to see many other film directors wanting to carry on an interview whilst bleeding from their stomach, but the man barely flinched. Kermode even remarks “Doing an interview with Herzog was not meant to come with the dangers associated with making one of his films”.
See how calm he is? It’s like the man expects this wherever he goes.
Herzog steals equipment to make his movies.
Herzog was a young man desperate to make movies. So desperate, in fact, that he would resort to theft to get them made. He relieved the Munich Film School of one of their 35mm cameras, using it to make his first 5 features. He also recommends other filmmakers steal equipment, break into development labs and doing whatever it takes to get your movie made. Speaking on the director’s commentary of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog commented “I don’t consider it theft – it was just a necessity – I had some sort of natural right for the camera, a tool to work with.”
Herzog offers to go grave robbing
As you may have guessed from one of the previous stories, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris have a strange relationship. As well as eating his own shoe in response to Morris finishing a movie, he was keen that his friend should finish another movie. One about serial killers. Never one to shy away from his subject matter, Herzog offered to DIG UP THE BODY of the mother of serial killer Ed Gein, the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho and The Silence of the lambs. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for sane people, including Morris) Morris didn’t show at the graveyard on the night. It isn’t known if Herzog would have carried out his offer – but after reading all about him in this article, I’m sure you can agree he probably would have.
Herzog films by an active volcano – with no escape
Herzog makes films in strange, often dangerous places, but usually the danger is calculated to avoid being suicidal. But this is werner Herzog, and nothing is ever easy. He is crazy, after all. In 1977, He made La Soufriere – a film where the director investigates an abandoned town, but not any old abandoned town, no. This town is on the side of an active volcano, which could erupt at any moment, killing everybody. They seem to have left in a hurry, they left their TV’s on. That should be a warning sign to anybody. Herzog didn’t care, he just kept on shooting, even though there was no escape had the volcano blown. It’s like the man has no fear of death, which could be explained by….
Herzog narrowly escapes death – makes a film about it.
During the filming of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog was due to catch a plane to go location scouting, when his itinerary was changed at the last minute. The flight went ahead as planned, however at 10,000ft the plane was struck by lightening, breaking apart and crashing. All on board were killed apart from 17 year old Juliane Koepcke, who fell from 10,000ft strapped to her chair, and survived with only a broken collarbone, cuts to her arm and a swollen eye. Working her way through the jungle for 9 days, with maggots in her arm wounds, starving and dehydrated, before being rescued.
Jump forward a few decades, and Herzog decides to track down notoriously shy Koepcke, persuades her to go back to the site of the crash, sit in the same seats as the day it happened and go and find pieces of the crashed aircraft. This was all to recreate the plane crash where Koepcke’s own MOTHER DIED. Im not sure how you can justify bringing all that up again. Herzog did.
Herzog makes a flm with hypnotized actors – shows films to hypnotized actors
Heart of Glass, a film about the madness that takes over a small Bavarian glass-blowing town, was not getting the right performances from his actors. So Herzog had an idea – why not hypnotize all your actors so they will behave the way you want? If you watch the movie, all the actors give a very slow delivery, staring off into the distance. In any other movie this would seem strange, however in a storyabout collective trance, sleepwalking and madness this fits well. At one point he even considered hypnotizing the audience at the start of the movie, but thought better of the idea, but only because of legal consequences, not because it is crazy. He did hypnotize some audiences when he was in attendance, where they tried to get behind the screen being projected on.
Herzog pulls a huge boat over a mountain – killing people in the process
After having lots of trouble in the rainforest filming Aguirre, anybody else would have called it a day, found some quiet projects to do close to home and had a quiet time. Not Herzog. He went straight back into the jungle to film Fitzcarraldo, a movie about an opera fan who tries to bring together two of the biggest stars of the time, in Peru. In the jungle. Of course there can only be one way to do that, right? Of course. Buy a rubber plantation, inaccessible by boat, and drag a boat over a mountain so it can reach the area. There would be so many ways to film that, surely? Miniatures, special effects? You should know better by now. There was only one way for Herzog to do it, for real. Pulling a huge boat over a mountain, killing several crew members (who were local natives) in the process.
Herzog releases 11000 rats whilst filming Nosferatu
He released 11,000 rats in the Dutch city of Schiedam whilst fliming Nosferatu
the Vampyre (1979). Each of the 11,000 rats had been individually dyed grey for
the scene, and were recaptured when filming ended. During transport and the dying process, over half of them died. The man advising on the rats, Maarten ‘t Hart, left the movie in disgust at their treatment. Herzog was pleased with the resulting shots.
Herzog walks across Europe – to stop a friend from dying
Lotte Eisner, respected film critic and historian, has a huge stroke. Werner decides that he will walk to see her – from Munich to Paris- that is over 500 miles. Herzog believed that Eisner would not die before he had visitied her one last time. It took him 3 months, and by the time he arrived, Eisner had recovered. Herzog wrote about this in the book Of Walking In Ice. He seems to laugh in the face of death.
Makes a movie about death row, asks a man about squirrels.
On Death Row, Herzog’s recent documentary about death row prisoners tried to get into the psychology of what goes through the mind of those about to be executed. Naturally most have repented their sins and made piece with their maker. The chaplain is a different matter however. He is restrained, not getting into much of an emotional dialogue, that is, until Herzog asks him to “tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.” Not a conventional question, for any other filmmaker, that is. The chaplain almost immediately breaks down. Herzog remarked in an interview
“nobody in film school can ever teach you that, how to crack him open with his cheerful voice. When you're a director of movies, you better know the heart of men and know how to very quickly look in the deepest recesses of his soul.”
So there you have it – The man is absolutely crazy, and that is what makes him so interesting. Working with him must be the scariest thing imaginable. Still, he makes great movies and maybe the madness is the reason for his fantastic work.