“You should be cautious.” Six times in the span of a 40-minute phone interview, filmmaker Werner Herzog says some variation of this, usually as a way to push back against an assertion I’ve made about himself, his process or his new documentary Meeting Gorbachev, which hits select theaters Friday. The 76-year-old filmmaker, who’s as well-known for his thought-provoking movies (everything from the epic period drama Aguirre, the Wrath of God to the sobering death-row documentary Into the Abyss) as for his rigorous speaking style, prizes preciseness, often clarifying or rejecting my word choices. At one point during an exchange where I ask him about how he approaches interviewing a subject, he responds, “Number one, I never have ‘interviews’ — it’s always ‘conversations.’”
In Meeting Gorbachev, which was co-directed by frequent collaborator André Singer, Herzog spends time with Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Recently turned 88, Gorbachev is no longer the towering figure he was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Age has slowed him, as has the fact that he still grieves the loss of his beloved wife Raisa, who died in 1999. Meeting Gorbachev is an affectionate look at this lion in winter who reshaped his nation through the radical dreams of glasnost and perestroika, helping to end the Cold War and bring about the reunification of Germany — only to watch relations between Russia and the U.S. in recent years once again grow chilly.
But when I suggest the film is a love letter to the man, which comes from a German director who was deeply invested in his home country’s reunification, Herzog swats away the characterization, replying, “You should be careful when you say ‘love letter.’ It sounds like emotional sort of things.”
And so it went with one of cinema’s greatest living directors, who has managed to plumb the depths of the human soul — our capacity to withstand anguish, our penchant to chase after impossible dreams — while desiring to keep himself as opaque as possible. During our chat, he resisted any attempt to discuss his own motivations or ambitions, wanting to keep the conversation entirely on Gorbachev and the film. “Let’s not go into that,” Herzog responds when I broach the subject of the film school he started about a decade ago. “That has nothing to do with Gorbachev. Let’s not lose ourselves.”
It’s both jarring and delightful to be corrected by Werner Herzog. On the one hand, his German accent can be as lacerating as a rap on the knuckles with a ruler — the dryness of his voice is enough to make you feel that you’ve been properly and thoroughly scolded. But on the other, we’ve all become so accustomed to his austere, weighty diction — as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich put it, “his signature drone of despair” — that it’s become a subject of endless spoofing and comedic impersonations. And, of course, sometimes it’s Herzog himself who’s doing the spoofing:
I think it’s part of the reason why Herzog has evolved into such an adored cultural figure. True, his films are often solemn portraits of our species, but they come from a man who we’ve learned to assume is perhaps overdramatic in his depiction of human beings’ fallibility and existence’s utter bleakness. On the phone, he can be droll and charming, almost as if the severity of his public presence is a bit of an act. And lest you think he’s unaware of the dichotomy of his oh-so-serious persona, we also discussed that a little — although, naturally, he took pains to adjust my thesis on the subject.
Below, Herzog explains why he told Gorbachev that he loves him, the one question he asked the former leader that he wasn’t supposed to and how he handles people imitating his voice. Plus, the filmmaker shares what his wife knows about him that none of us do. Just don’t ask him what he would want on his tombstone.
At Meeting Gorbachev’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, you said that you told Gorbachev that you weren’t approaching him as a journalist but, rather, as a poet. Is that how you view yourself?
We should be cautious to label everything like that, but there’s a grain of truth in it. Gorbachev was very glad that he didn’t meet a journalist with a catalog of questions, and we had an instant rapport. But, of course, Gorbachev knew quite a lot about me — and I had done my homework as well, so we went into this not completely unprepared.
In the movie, it’s clear you have a lot of affection for him. Did you feel that affection even before meeting him? Or was it just from your interactions on camera?
We had an instant rapport, and it came because we had a similar childhood, both growing up in ruins, both knowing hunger, both having no running water at their homes, both of us growing up in the most remotest parts of their country. But, of course, there was a very deep respect for him, for his extraordinary role in the German reunification.
I had traveled on foot around my own country, all the sinuations of the borderline itself. He wanted to hold [the country] together when politics had given up on reunification. Willy Brandt, the [German] chancellor at that time, whom in principal I liked, had given up on reunification. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, was vehemently against unification. I said, “Now, it’s only our culture — it’s only the poets who can hold the country together.”
Many of your films are about men chasing after unachievable dreams. Could Gorbachev be described as a dreamer? And was that part of the appeal for you?
I can’t really answer it straightforward. But, of course, we have to be cautions to label Gorbachev a dreamer, because he’s a very profound pragmatist, somebody who knows what’s doable in politics. He had a deep, deep new vision. In that way, we can maybe describe him [as] having an affinity to poets, to poetry, by his deep vision about his own country, about the fate of the relationship between East and West and about the changes in his own country, structural changes.
You mentioned that you share difficult childhoods. I’m curious how a background like that shaped you as an artist.
You shouldn’t harp too much about his background and my background. Of course, it always has a certain formative character about it, but we met on a different ground. It was obvious that we had a deep understanding from the first moment we met. Gorbachev knows the heart of men more than anyone I’ve ever met.
How do you build rapport with someone you’re profiling? Does it come easily to you? Or does it vary between subjects?
It varies, but that’s what I do. When I, for example, have a conversation on camera with a man who is on death row and will be executed in eight days, and I have exactly 45 minutes with him on a camera — no meeting before or after — you have to establish the rapport right then and there.
In your experience, is there any trick to establishing that rapport? Or is it simply being open and genuine in the moment?
There’s no tricks and no strategies. You cannot learn anything like this in film school, or anywhere. You have to have it in you. And that’s what a filmmaker has to have in him or in her. That’s what I do — that’s my profession.
In the film, Gorbachev talks about what he’d like on his gravestone: “We tried.” Have you thought about what you’d like on yours?
Oh, I couldn’t care less. And secondly, I shouldn’t die anyway. [laughs]
That would be the greatest trick of all.
People always think I have no humor, but I do.
It’s funny that you mention your sense of humor. I always was fond of Incident at Loch Ness, a mockumentary where you sent up your own persona. Clearly, you have an understanding about your persona and how to tweak it.
Yes, but you should be cautious. Incident at Loch Ness is not my film. It’s a film by Zak Penn, and it was all scripted. I was only a paid stooge, or a paid character.
Of course, but I still remember being at the Nuart here in L.A. the weekend it premiered. You spoke before the film and said that your goal was “to out-Eddie Murphy Eddie Murphy” in the movie. Did you feel like you achieved that goal?
Let’s depart from myself. Let’s go back to Gorbachev.
When you make a film like Meeting Gorbachev, there’s a part of you that’s coming across in the movie. You narrate, and you appear on camera. The film’s about him, but it’s also about you, wouldn’t you say?
Well, I think you should be very cautious in not drawing direct connection between my leading characters and myself, so that’s one thing. And second, when I was working on Gorbachev, I actually did two more films. In the last 12 months, I created two more films, and they’re all coming out. One is Meeting Gorbachev, being released theatrically early in May. The Tribeca Film Festival is holding the world premiere of my film on Bruce Chatwin — it’s called Nomad. And later, I will have my feature film called Family Romance, LLC at the Cannes Film Festival. So it’s going crazy at the moment.
It seems like you enjoy being prolific — you like being busy.
It just happens that the projects are coming at me with great vehemence, and I just deal with what is coming swinging at me.
Meeting Gorbachev doesn’t touch much on current politics, but Trump and Putin are definitely part of the background. It seems intentional that you didn’t mention them more overtly.
It was clear that Gorbachev didn’t want to go into the current situation. The only thing that’s very obvious — and you can feel it throughout the film — is that the demonization of Russia in the media of the West is a big mistake. We should look beyond the horizon and find a situation between the most unlikely characters whoever met — Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. They achieved monumental things that changed the world [for the] better.
It seems like we need two leaders now who would be willing to work together to do monumental things.
Don’t push me into the corner of being a pundit.
I was curious if you had any thoughts about that…
May I mention one detail about the current president?
I find it a very fascinating move to meet with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, the two most improbable characters you can ever invent. I hope — and it’s not completely farfetched — that this diffuses a very dangerous situation. But it should be on a bigger scope. It should be not only North Korea and United States. What is our relationship with Russia? And where are the real dangers lurking? I do believe it’s not Russia — the dangers are making [themselves] known, seen and felt in other corners of the planet.
Gorbachev isn’t in good health in the film. Have you kept in touch with him? How’s he doing?
He’s not in good health. Yesterday at the screening in Moscow, he couldn’t attend, because he’s been in the hospital for quite some time now. He saw the film. He liked it very much, and he said, by far, it’s the best film ever made on him. I’m content with that judgment.
With a documentary like Into the Abyss or Meeting Gorbachev, it’s clear you’re speaking to people who are close to the end of their lives. Is there poignancy in knowing you may be conducting the last interview ever with these subjects?
In Gorbachev’s case, it was always clear that he would never speak to any media again in his life after this. We knew it was his last time ever on camera.
Does that add pressure?
No, not really. But I knew this was a serious thing, and there is no lingering and loitering about anything that’s not essential.
In the film, I was really struck by you telling him that you loved him. Did that come about spontaneously?
Well, he knew it beforehand. He had done a lot of homework on me and apparently seen a few of my films. But sure, yes, because reunification of Germany was of very deep importance for me.
The film feels like a love letter of sorts to him and what he achieved.
You should be careful when you say “love letter.” It sounds like emotional sort of things. We are very pragmatic, very much matter-of-fact. It’s a meeting man-to-man, knowing that this is the last time he will ever speak to any public in his life, knowing that I had the privilege to film this. So you cannot do a film that’s just a love letter. It has to be deeper. It has to be more significant than just emotional vanilla ice cream.
I thought it was quite bold how you asked him if he still thinks about his wife since her death. Did you feel bold in that moment?
Yes, it was only borne out of the moment. I was asked by his entourage, “Please, try to avoid speaking about his wife.” She was so close to him, and he loved her with a depth that I’ve hardly ever seen in a man that I’ve ever encountered in my life. And we had, in a way, come to a point where it was absolutely natural to speak about his wife, and he does so without hesitation. Of course, he’s a deeply lonesome man ever since his wife died.
That segment of the movie seems to speak to a larger cultural blind spot, how we ignore the important women in powerful men’s lives.
Yes, not only was she the love of his life and the mother of his daughter and his closest confidante, his closest advisor. He was anchored in her. In many countries, you see wives of presidents that play no real role in the deeper questions of politics, but she did apparently.
I’m curious about the people in your life who maybe served a similar function.
Of course, of course, I’m a very lucky man. I’m very happily married. My wife, who’s American, she was born in Siberia, and she has all the beauty and the depth and the poetry and the soul of her country. I said to Gorbachev, speaking about myself, “I’m a lucky man. It can’t get any better.” And I made the remark, “You must have been very lucky.” And he almost shouted at me, “No, no. I was not lucky. I was searching for her.”
In terms of your career, how much has been a product of luck? And how much has just been hard work?
Well, we have to spend 48 hours going from film to film. But in general, I can say, yes, I’ve been very lucky, but I deserved it.
From the beginning, have you always known that it was important to have conversations, not interviews, when making documentaries?
Well, I think you have to have it in you. You have to know the heart of men in order to do what I do, and that’s my profession.
Is that something you’ve always understood — the heart of men?
Yes, and that’s something which pertains not just to the documentaries — it has to do with the feature films that I’m doing. And it has to do with the acting I’m doing. When I play a villain in Jack Reacher, of course, personally, I’m a friendly person. My wife would testify immediately that I’m a fluffy husband. But on camera, I can play the badass bad guy in a film. I have to be frightening — that’s what I was paid for.
Yes, I know. I did it well.
When you meet the subject of a new film, do they sometimes have a certain impression of what you’ll be like? Do you ever have to explain that you’re not like your public persona?
No, I do not need to explain much. That would be counterproductive. I just go into it. And from the first moment of the conversation on camera, people sense that I’m looking at them with deep respect — including men on death row.
You’ve mentioned Into the Abyss a few times in our conversation, which is one of my favorite films of yours. After you make a movie like that, do you feel like you’ve learned something? Either about yourself or humanity in general?
That’s a hard question to answer. I constantly learn, but it’s not that I make films to learn about myself. I’m a filmmaker, I’m a professional — you have to see that first and foremost. How much and what I learned is ultimately irrelevant. The only thing that counts is what you see on the screen.
I completely understand. But I guess I was wondering, as an artist, if there’s also curiosity about what you may discover about yourself along the way.
No, I do not want to look at myself at all. I do not like introspection. I’m not into that business.
I read an interview where you said that you don’t dream. Has that always been the case?
I think I do not dream — it’s not that I don’t remember them. I feel it always as a void. And maybe because of that I do films. It may be one of the reasons.
I suppose learning how to dream isn’t something you can train yourself to do.
I always envy people who tell me about their dreams.
You have such a distinctive speaking style — so much so that comedians and others do exaggerated impressions of it. How do you feel about that?
Well, there’s a lot of imposters, in particular on the internet. There’s at least three dozen imposters and fake Herzogs floating around. It’s all forgeries. But it’s okay. Let it be. You cannot change it. And today, representation of self is different than 20 years ago. You have to learn how to live with it. I must say, I don’t care much about it.
Plus, you famously don’t own a cellphone. How often do people pester you about not having one?
I don’t care, and everything that’s important reaches me.
It seems like there are two elements of your work: making the art and then going out to promote it.
A film is not made for myself. It’s made for audiences. And you have to get a film across to audiences, and that’s part of what I do.
Right, but I also wonder if it’s partly because of who you are. “Celebrity” is the wrong word, but you’re a known filmmaker. People want to hear from you — they want to engage in your intellect and your thoughts on the films you make.
Yeah, but we should be cautious. I’m not the voice that’s necessary to explain the world.