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2006 Outstanding Achievement Award: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog – We are his Films

“Yes, I think I should come to Toronto,” says Werner Herzog, in his famous way, over the phone from Los Angeles. The legendary filmmaker had accepted out invitation to receive the Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award, and we were very happy, high fives all around the office.

Somewhat strange, Herzogian moments ensue.

At a video store, purchasing some Herzog discs, the clerk launches into a monologue from Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s infamous documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo: “Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don’t want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project…” It’s hilarious, a spot-on impersonation, and even his ad-libs work. I tell him Herzog will be coming to Toronto. “Very cool!”

And then an e-mail from a colleague: Werner Herzog has “rescued” Joaquin Pheonix following a minor car accident. Huh? The actor is quoted in the article: “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax.’ There’s the airbag, I can’t see and I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I’m relaxed.’ Finally, I roll down my window and this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not.’ And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog!’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you,’ and he was gone.”

Reading Paul Cronin’s excellent interview book, Herzog on Herzog, I encounter, among a bevy of juicy quotes, this unorthodox advice for the novice filmmaker: “First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them not to be afraid. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete.”

Another e-mail. Herzog has been shot while being interviewed by the BBC. A lark? No, the video evidence is available online. The journalist asks if they should continue the interview. “Yes,” says the director, “It was not a significant bullet.”

A phone call from Seattle. A young filmmaker, Linas Phillis, has made a doc journal of his epic walk from Seattle to Los Angeles. We should see it. He journeyed on foot to meet his “cinematic father,” Werner Herzog, a walker himself. Walking to Werner is a little raw, but honest and heartfelt, with some poetry all its own. Our Programming Coordinator, a film student, becomes its passionate champion. She now wants to see all of Herzog’s films and starts sending me, what else, daily Herzog quotes.

An awesome box set of Herzog’s documentaries arrives from Germany. I revisit and revel in films — Fata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner — I haven’t seen in several years, and discover many unknown to me. La Soufrière is funny, bizarre and somehow beyond irony. “There is certainly an element of self-mockery in the final film,” Herzog tells Cronin. God’s Angry Man, Echoes from a Sombre Empire, Land of Silence and Darkness… our modest programme regrettably won’t have capacity for them all, yet the depth of respect and adoration for Herzog’s body of work, and the man himself, comes into sharp focus.

The Festival approaches and the filmmakers we invite don’t talk about their own films. They ask about Herzog. Requests to be scheduled around Herzog’s visit come in; not so subtle hints that, you know, “I’m available for dinner,” are dropped.

James Quandt’s terrific essay on Herzog appears in Cinematheque Ontario’s Spring 2006 Programme Guide. Our partner in the Herzog presentation, they will present five of his fiction films. “Mystical, maddening, obsessive, excessive, brooding and beautiful, the films of Werner Herzog have been both adored and reviled, as has their maker,” leads the copy. They’ve used all the adjectives, and the eloquence, and we still have to write ours. I Am My Films is the title of an early self-portrait by Herzog. That’s it, that’s what we’ll write. Over the past several months we have become his films, and loved every moment of it.

Sean Farnel Director of Programming

Hot Docs thanks Werner Herzog and Lucki Stipetic for their support of this programme. Also, our thanks to James Quandt, Andrea Picard and George Kaltsounakis of Cinematheque Ontario (a division of Toronto International Film Festival Group) for their collaboration. We are also grateful for the support of the Goethe-Institut.

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