The wisdom of Werner Herzog

Nine thought-provoking quotes from the legendary film-maker’s memoir, Every Man for Himself and God Against All.

Book, Every Man for Himself and God Against All by Werner Herzog, against an orange background

Werner Herzog is a true international icon. He has produced, written and directed more than seventy features and documentary films, including the multi-award-winning Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But his life has been equally as eventful as his cinematic work: hauling a steamship over a mountain in the jungle; walking from Munich to Paris in the dead of winter; descending into an active volcano; living in the wilderness among grizzly bears. He has always been intrigued by extremes of human experience. 

In his long-awaited memoir, Herzog reveals the influences that have driven his creativity, and shares what he’s learned about life over eight decades. Here is just a sample of his wisdom on film-making, walking, the phone book and psychoanalysis.

‘I feel some relief in knowing my origins are somewhat swathed in mystery . . . people know too much anyway. My publications and film releases render me vulnerable enough: so many breaches in a fortification that stands unprotected anyway.’

‘Many things in my life look to me like a high-wire act, even though most of the time I don’t even notice there are abysses to either side of me.’

‘Making purely factual films has never interested me. Truth does not necessarily have to agree with facts. Otherwise, the Manhattan phone book would be The Book of Books. Four million entries, all factually correct, all subject to confirmation. But that doesn’t tell us anything about one of the dozens of James Millers in there. His number and address are indeed correct. But why does he cry into his pillow every night?’

‘I have a deep aversion to too much introspection, to navel-gazing. I’d rather die than go to an analyst, because it’s my view that something fundamentally wrong happens here. If you harshly light every last corner of a house, the house will become uninhabitable . . . I am convinced that it’s psychoanalysis – along with quite a few other mistakes – that has made the twentieth century so terrible. As far as I’m concerned, the twentieth century, in its entirety, was a mistake.’

‘The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.’

‘The proponents of the so-called cinema verité . . . claim for themselves the truth of the whole genre of documentary films. As the auteur of a film, you are not allowed to exist, or not more than a fly on the wall anyway. That creed would make the CCTV cameras in banks the ultimate form of filmmaking. But I don’t want to be a fly; I’d rather be a hornet.’

‘I always thought of myself as making mainstream films, but that I was a sort of secret mainstream.’

‘To me, the deciphering of [the Minoan script] Linear B is one of our greatest cultural and intellectual achievements bar none . . . Unfortunately, it transpired that the texts were nothing like Homer or Sophocles, not poems at all, but bookkeeping and inventories – who owed how much corn and olive oil to whom and when.’

‘I have trouble describing myself because I have a vexed relationship with mirrors. I look in the mirror when I shave so I don’t cut myself, but that shows me my jaw-line, not my person. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what colour my eyes are.’