About the Memoir by Werner Herzog Titled “Every Man for Himself and God Against All”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Emily Bobrow headlined “Werner Herzog Calls His 70-Plus Films a Distraction. Instead You Should Read His Book.”:

Werner Herzog is renowned for his strange and novel filmmaking—and for the lengths to which he’ll go to get a shot. In “Fitzcarraldo,” his 1982 film about an opera-loving madman who hauls a steamship over a mountain in pursuit of rubber in the Amazonian jungle, Herzog had his crew haul an actual 320-ton boat on pulleys over a muddy mountain in the Amazon, even though a Brazilian engineer quit after warning that it was too dangerous. “I swear to God it’s not a special effect,” says Herzog, who disdains them. “Audiences can tell right away.”

Roger Ebert once anointed Herzog, now 81, “the most original and challenging of directors.” But Herzog insists his films “are a distraction” from what he thinks will ultimately be his more enduring legacy: his writing. “There’s no one who writes like me, no one,” he says over video during a recent trip to Austria, not far from the small German village where he grew up. “Look at my prose, look at my literature. I believe it will outlive my films.”

This is a bold statement from a man responsible for over 70 films and a handful of esoteric books, including his first novel, “The Twilight World,” published in English last year. His new memoir, “Every Man for Himself and God Against All,” out next month, promises to bring his writings to a wider audience. Herzog’s idiosyncratic movies and methods have earned him a loyal following, and the book addresses various rumors about his life and career. Did he really jump into a bed of cactuses after shooting his 1970 film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”? Yes, and he writes that this quirky stunt, meant to boost the cast’s morale, left him with “long nasty spines” in the sinews of his knees for months.

Herzog has lived a life well-suited for a memoir, with exploits that include stints as a rodeo clown in Mexico (though he had no riding experience), acting opposite Tom Cruise as a villain in “Jack Reacher” and being held in a prison in Cameroon in the 1960s for reasons he claims still not to understand. He chronicles these experiences poetically yet somewhat anthropologically, seemingly uninterested in the roots of his own instincts. “I have a deep aversion to too much introspection, to navel-gazing,” he writes. He asserts that a house is “uninhabitable when every last corner is harshly lit” and dismisses psychoanalysis as “one of the many reasons why the 20th century, in its entirety, was a mistake.”

Herzog was born in 1942 in Munich, but his mother fled with her two sons for rural Bavaria, he writes, upon discovering her baby Werner covered in broken glass and rubble in his cradle amid the Allied bombing. Growing up in a home without running water or reliable electricity, Herzog recalls spending much of his youth hungry and cold, but it was “the most incredible, wonderful childhood,” he insists. Unhindered by rules or fathers—Herzog’s never lived with the family—he and his friends filled their days with “anarchic” adventures and learned about life for themselves. He says friends who grew up in postwar German cities felt the same way: “They were the kings of bombed-out blocks.”

Herzog saw his first films at 11 when a man with a mobile projector came to his one-room schoolhouse, but the experience left him unmoved. He went to the cinema more regularly while living in Munich as a teenager but remained underwhelmed by the escapades of Zorro and Dr. Fu Manchu.

Yet he sensed at 14 that he was destined “to be a poet and to make films,” so he watched closely whatever he could to learn how to build suspense and tell a story. Rejected by the local film school, he saw his ignorance of convention as an asset: “I would have to come up with a cinema of my own,” he writes.

To pay for his first teenage productions, Herzog worked the night shift as a spot welder and stole his first camera from the film-school storeroom. Despite earning a big prize for a full-length screenplay at 22, he knew that financial backing for a feature film was still out of reach, so he went to the U.S. to attend Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University on a film studies scholarship. He found the school “intellectually impoverished” and dropped out, but he lingered in Pittsburgh to work for a local documentarian and then fled to Mexico to avoid deportation.

From Mexico, he next headed to Guatemala to join a Mayan political movement but succumbed to hepatitis after trying unsuccessfully to swim across a river to evade border authorities. After regaining his health, he returned to Germany and worked on his first feature, “Signs of Life,” about a German soldier who goes mad on the Greek island of Kos. It won a jury prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1968.

With documentaries on subjects from ski jumping (“The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner,” 1974) to doomed environmental activists (“Grizzly Man,” 2005) and features about Dracula (“Nosferatu the Vampyre,” 1979) and American prisoners of war (“Rescue Dawn,” 2006), among many others, Herzog’s oeuvre is hard to classify. If there is a unifying theme, it is that his films blur the line between fact and fiction in pursuit of what he calls the “ecstatic truth.” He stages scenes in his documentaries if the result feels right and bristles at the thought of being a mere fly on the wall: “I’d rather be a hornet,” he writes. His output can seem frenzied, with sometimes two releases in a year, but he is still brimming with stories he hopes to tell. “There’s such a vehemence to these projects that I sometimes can’t find a producer fast enough,” he says. “If I have to, I’ll finance my films myself.”

Herzog lives with his wife Lena, a photographer, in Los Angeles, but at a remove from Hollywood—both conceptually and literally. When he is not traveling for his films, he teaches a kind of guerrilla filmmaking at his roving Rogue Film School, launched in 2009. He says that it is easier than ever to work on the cheap—“you can make a 90-minute cinema-quality documentary for $20,000”—and argues against taking office jobs. “Work in a slaughterhouse, work as a guard in a lunatic asylum, work where real life is happening, at its densest,” he says. “The only thing I teach is how to open a safety lock with a set of surgical tools, or how to forge documents like shooting permits, without which many of my films would not have happened.”

Herzog’s “orientation to something sublime” nudged him toward Catholicism for a spell as a teen, and he still brings Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible to his shoots. The “consolation” he gets from the Book of Job proved especially valuable when he worked with the notoriously explosive Klaus Kinski, the star of some of Herzog’s most memorable films, including “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972). “Every gray hair on my head I call ‘Kinski,’ but so what? What counts are the films, and he’s incomparable,” he says.

Herzog may make allowances for the tantrums of talented actors, but he says his ambition for himself is always to be “a good soldier.” He approaches his work with a sense of duty and says that time has hardened his courage. “My fascinations have become wider and wilder,” he says. “I’m not afraid of anything anymore.”

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