Werner Herzog on Filmmaking and 24 Pieces of Advice

(EDIT:  – see update at end of article)

In 1971, Werner Herzog was scouting locations in Peru for a film he was working on. Due to a last minute change in his itinerary, he canceled his reservation aboard the LANSA Flight 508 departing Christmas eve. Almost an hour after Flight 508 took off, it was bathed in thunderstorms. Lighting struck the flight, leading to its disintegration.  91 lives were lost and only one human survived. Still attached to her seat, the sole survivor darted through two miles of turbulent skies before plunging into the dense Amazon forest below. A combination of a spiraling fall, wind uplift, and landing between trees with intertwined branches and vines that acted as a cushioning device, are all attributed to her survival.

Peeling herself off the muddy ground, she dazedly embarked on a trek through the unforgiving landscape that was home to crocodiles, snakes, and a plethora of insects. On the tenth day, she collapsed in a village she discovered. They treated her maggot-infested wound and boated her back to the nearest civilization.

Herzog was long haunted by knowing his life would have ended if it weren’t for the last minute cancellation. Many years later, he decided to track down the sole survivor and create a fascinating documentary (Wings of Hope) that entailed visiting the crash site choked by Amazonian vegetation.

Survivor via the crash site
Survivor via the crash site

This is but one of the many reasons Werner Herzog is a bad motherfucker in my book. Herzog has not only made documentaries that I admire such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man, but publishes rich, inspirational wisdom found in his latest book, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed.


In the back of the book, Herzog dispenses 24 pieces of filmmaking advice that implicitly seem to double as life advice:

  1. Always take the initiative.
  2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
  3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
  4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
  5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
  6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
  7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
  8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
  9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
  10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
  11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
  12. Take your fate into your own hands.
  13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
  14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
  15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
  16. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver.
  17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.
  18. Develop your own voice.
  19. Day one is the point of no return.
  20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
  21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
  22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
  23. Take revenge if need be.
  24. Get used to the bear behind you.

Herzog, who was raised in poverty and survived a WWII bombing as a child, is a self-taught filmmaker.  At one point, he noted that academic film school is the “…death of cinema.” He says that one doesn’t need to be schooled as to what the antagonist should do on page 6 and what the protagonist needs to do on page 14, and so forth. What Herzog is getting at is that film school can destroy the creative process of the aspiring filmmaker by instilling “shoulds” and “should nots.” Instead, he states that if you hold the story in your head, grab a camera and start filming. This suggests a learn by doing approach.

“I am a product of my failures.” – Herzog

I understand Herzog in that aspect. I’m currently taking some documentary filmmaking courses where the professors assign the same books, but yet some do not seem to have actually read them. Some give advice that goes against the book; some don’t know what you’re talking about when you argue a topic from the book(s). You need to do this that way and you need to do that this way. You have to write this, give it to that person, work with this person, and…well, you get the picture. All of this can create a level of distortion and/or confusion in the creative mind.  I have interacted with other students who also noticed this, but they quietly go through all the bullshit (as they call it) in order to obtain their degree/certificate which will give them “credibility” when attempting to seek a job and/or enter the film industry.

Herzog serves cut and dry simplistic approaches to filmmaking. Want to make a film? Grab your camera and start filming. Need money to make a film? Work odd jobs and save for 6 months. Herzog:

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking — like great literature — must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because — as remote as it might seem — at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

“Facts do not convey truth. That’s a mistake. Facts create norms, but truth creates illumination.” -Herzog

Heck, Werner Herzog hosts a rare, randomly announced course at his Rogue Film School that states:

The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted; it is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as a bouncer in a sex club or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lockpicking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects. In short: for those who have a sense for poetry. For those who can tell a story to four year old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within.

For those who have a dream.

In the book, Herzog also states the following regarding his Rogue Film School:

You would be allowed to submit an application only after having travelled, alone and on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of nearly two thousand miles. While walking, write about your experiences, then give me your notebooks. I would immediately be able to tell who had really walked and who had not. You would learn more about filmmaking during your journey than if you spent five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. Somebody who has been a boxer in Africa would be better trained as a filmmaker than if he had graduated from one of the “best” film schools in the world. All that counts is real life.

My film school would allow you to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind, and would produce people with spirit, a furious inner excitement, a burning flame within. This is what ultimately creates films. Technical knowledge inevitably becomes dated; the ability to adapt to change will always be more important. At my utopian film academy there would be a vast loft with a boxing ring in one corner. Participants, working every day with a trainer, would learn to somersault, juggle and perform magic tricks. Whether you would be a filmmaker by the end I couldn’t say, but at least you would emerge as a confident and fearless athlete. After this vigorous physical work, sit quietly and master as many languages as possible. The end result would be like the knights of old who knew how to ride a horse, wield a sword and play the lute.

Truth among plastic.

This book is not just for filmmakers; it is for anyone who desires to add logs to the creative process fireplace. It is for those who are fascinated by biographical adventures. It is for storytellers. It is for anyone who loves to collect philosophies and wisdom.

A few filmmakers debated with me that I’m promoting sketchy practices; I am not. I’m simply writing about a prominent filmmaker and his philosophies. One filmmaker argued that carrying boltcutters everywhere and spending a night in jail is horrible advice. In no way am I advocating the use of Herzog’s philosophies. I do not know if Herzog literally carried bolt cutters. It’s my view that it is metaphorical, as in, “have tools to get the job done.”

Consider Herzog’s strange film, Fitzcarraldo.  A major highlight of the film was the large steamboat lifted over a mountain. That wasn’t special effects. He literally had natives and others struggle to push a 320-ton steamboat over a mountain while battling bugs, disease, and hunger. The Amazonian set was a nightmare rich in injuries and deaths. One person chainsawed their arm off after being bitten by a venomous snake. We’ll stop there.  “Bolt cutters” is metaphorical here: any obstacle to get that 320-ton steamboat was “cut” with a solution of labor, ropes, trees, and machetes.

Let’s consider the “Thwart institutional cowardice” philosophy.  Some argued that its teaching others that institutions are cowards, leading the student to hate that institution. When one examines the work of Herzog, there’s a theme of creating something that’s unique and truthful.  A hunger to show us stories of the world that break us out of our little bubbles. In one of my evolutionary anthropology courses, a professor showed a documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” created by–you guessed it–Werner Herzog.  Herzog took a simple camera halfway around the world into the depths of a cave that was once home to our human ancestors and captured our imaginations with his storytelling. That is a key essence of Herzog:  go create the visions that serve you best, instead of being suffocated by “institutions” that have their own interests in mind.

‘Institutional cowardice’ can be argued to be a bad thing. Consider the times we had ‘institutions’ of slavery, eugenics, etc.  Did such institutions serve the interests of its slaves or the interests of the institutions? When reading history, you find that there were many against such institutions, but never vocally expressed concerns due to being labeled an outcast. These institutions were cowards. The greater whole did not “thwart” them, so they flourished, engraving their self-serving ideas into the minds of the general public. Think about that for a second. A child in that time grew up to see a Black person as inferior. Once programmed, it is practically impossible to change their views.  This is the philosophy of Herzog, don’t allow yourself to be sucked in into any one way of thinking, but to do your own thinking, be brave to follow your own path. If you become molded to an institution that doesn’t serve your interests, you will be imprisoned.

Let’s examine one more Herzog philosophy: Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver. Does it mean anything malicious?  No.  We’ll use college as an analogy here. Young adults are thrown into a college system for 4-years with the ‘hope’ that they will become something. The merciless college factory devours them into a frenzied, sleepless world of 4-6 classes per week with punishing demands. While the students are fleshing out identity issues,  dealing with anxieties from loves, battling raging sexual hormones, managing a taxing college social life, working to pay for that $200 textbook, and simply making sense of the world, they are expected to read encyclopedias, write book-length essays, perform oral presentations, take notes from lectures and regurgitate them in exam times – all in a structured factory assembly line-like manner with deadlines.

This college structure is demanding. How does a young person who is starting out in the world balance life, love, relationships, social life, family life, work life, college work, relationships with professors, stress, health, and have time for themselves? It’s difficult, but they maneuver the system, they make do with whatever they have with whatever they face.  There’s a biology exam on Wednesday,  a field trip on Thursday, and a history paper due on Friday. After cramming for the biology exam, their brains are depleted. After Thursday’s long field trip, the student decides to go with other students for a little break and socializing.  6 bottles of Tequila later, they are peeling their faces off the floor and heading to bed after an evening of well-deserved laughter. “Oh fuck, I still need to write 3 pages of the 20-page history paper due in the morning to Professor TuffGrader!”

The fatigued student needs to make a decision.  The most obvious solution is to request an extension until Monday. But how? Will the truth be a disadvantage or is a white lie ok? The student has two options:

  1. “Dear Dr. TuffGrader, after a difficult week of exams and managing life, I went out for a stress-releasing evening with the botany students and we got shitfaced with Tequila and somehow ended up in the forest hunting bears. May you kindly give an extension until Monday to hand in my paper?”
  2. “Dear Dr. TuffGrader, I have contracted the flu that’s spreading around campus.  Under my doctor’s guidance, I am resting at my family’s home and unable to function.  My paper will be turned in on Monday after recovery time.”

To saveface, the student will mislead in order to have that little extra time to write a great paper. The student–who is an excellent student–always deliver.  Sometimes life happens, but they always deliver.

That’s how I interpret the “maneuver and mislead but always deliver” philosophy. This is something that most humans naturally do.  A project with a deadline is demanding, but you maneuver through all the obstacles, gently mislead to cover for life issues/integrity, and despite challenges, you always deliver.