In this episode Paul and Werner Herzog discuss the difficult discipline of distancing, reading and cultural memory for a new generation, the fragility of our existence on this planet, and ultimately the importance of sharing of warmth, stories, and music.
The Quarantine Tapes: a daily program from Onassis LA and dublab. Hosted by Paul Holdengräber, the series chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing.
About Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog, born in Munich in 1942, grew up as a child in a remote valley in the Bavarian mountains. Until age 11, he did not even know of the existence of cinema. He started to develop film projects from age 15 on, and since no one was willing to finance them, he worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory during the last years of high school. He also started to travel on foot. He made his first phone call at age 17 and his first film at 19. He dropped out of college where he studied history and literature. Since then he has written, produced, and directed some 70 films, has published books of prose, staged about a dozen operas, acted in films, and founded his own Rogue Film School.
About the host...
Paul Holdengräber is an interviewer and curator of public curiosity. He is the Founder and Director of Onassis LA (OLA), a center for dialogue. Previously he was the Founder and Director of LIVE from the NYPL, a cultural series at the New York Public Library, where he hosted over 600 events, holding conversations with everyone from Patti Smith to Zadie Smith, Ricky Jay to Jay-Z, Errol Morris to Jan Morris, Wes Anderson to Helen Mirren, Christopher Hitchens to Mike Tyson. He is the host of "A Phone Call From Paul," a podcast for The Literary Hub.
You can follow Paul on Twitter @holdengraber
About the Onassis Foundation
Onassis LA is a center for dialogue in Los Angeles, and a part of the Onassis Foundation.
Intro: Welcome to the Quarantine Tapes, a daily podcast from Onassis L.A. and Dublab. Hosted by Paul Holdengräber, the series chronicles shifting paradigms in the era of social distancing.
Werner Herzog: Yes, hello.
Paul Holdengräber: Hello. Hello, Werner, Werner Herzog, it's a pleasure to speak with you today, and thank you.
Werner Herzog: Good morning, yes.
Paul Holdengräber: Good morning to you and thank you for launching our quarantine tapes. We're beginning this series now in these very troubled times, and I'd like to start with a quotation by Pascal that, I know Blaise Pascal is very close to you, and Pascal in the past said something that has very much been on my mind now, partly because it's taken a whole new resonance in these times. Pascal said that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone", and I'm wondering how you might react to that.
Werner Herzog: Well we have to take time to absorb it because it's a very deep statement, but there is a practical, immediate response. Just go into reading. We have lost our nexus with, with good books, poetry. We have lost it pretty much out of, out of our lives. You know, too much into tweets and Facebook quick notes and things like that. So it's a wonderful time for reading.
Paul Holdengräber: You mean this time now that we're living through? Do you think that the effects of this global pandemic will have an effect of bringing people more into an interior life?
Werner Herzog: Inevitably so. Yes. And of course, there has to be discipline. There has to be discipline because we are not in our regular lives. In the experience with reality, we are not made for understanding a mathematical principle that is in effect now our geometrical progression of the disease. You see, we are we are linear in our daily experience. You meet one person in the street and then the next and then the next and the next. But what the virus does is a different mathematical form. You meet 32 persons, but the next person is not 33, but twice as many 64. The next one, two days later, is not 65, but 128. You see what I mean? We do not have everyday experience with a geometrical progression. So because of that, we have to be disciplined. We have to understand that there is a principle out there that is not in our regular lives expectations.
Paul Holdengräber: And how should we be disciplined and differently put? How are you disciplined?
Werner Herzog: I am not going out unless there's an absolute necessity. Period.
Paul Holdengräber: Could you foresee this coming?
Werner Herzog: No, but I have speculated more about what would happen to the human race if there was no internet anymore - in a period of time that I've made a film. And of course it would, it would probably be the doom of modern civilization where I've speculated about a big volcanic event, a catastrophic impact of, of a meteorite, for example, a volcanic event which would obscure the sky for a whole decade. And that would be really, really serious for almost the entire amount of the human race.
Paul Holdengräber: I remember in a conversation you and I had in London so many years ago, a decade ago, really, you, you speculated what would happen if electricity stopped working in the city of London. Yeah, and I mean, now, now we are in a situation - Within a week - that has changed habits. And I'm, I'm wondering if you, if you think, I mean, however difficult it is a question to ask in this context with so many people are suffering, if you think this will in a way, reboot us or make us think differently or go more deeply to ourselves or, you know, change - change us in one form or another.
Werner Herzog: Well, I hope for it. It should bring the best out of, out of us and it can. Yesterday, I saw on TV a person, a volunteer in Seattle who was somehow receiving a virus similar to coronavirus and some sort of test vaccine is going to be used on him. And I think this is heroic. He gets a disease and tests an insecure way to get rid of it. You see, that's, that's the best, the most civil person, and I remember the face of the man. Totally civil. Wonderful man. He should, he should get - these people should get the Nobel Prize in medicine. The guinea pigs. The human volunteer guinea pigs. Give them the Nobel Prize right away before the committee even starts to convene.
Paul Holdengräber: If it can convene.
Werner Herzog: Pardon?
Paul Holdengräber: If it can convene, you know, we're living through what's so extraordinary is the very, the very institutions we need the most, the places we need the most, to to convene and come together, we can't. And I think what this has brought to the forefront to some extent is just how much in in one sense, we need other people.
Werner Herzog: Sure, of course, and what can I say, but we need we need other people who respond with warmth, who respond with affection. Who respond with giving us a familiarity that we normally do not have between neighbors, for example, across the street. We have a close relationship to our neighbors, but now they are like family.
Paul Holdengräber: Right, so it creates a new form of conviviality, and you wer talking about reading, and I know you have a dictum that what we really need to do, most of all; I'll have you say it because you say it better than anyone.
Werner Herzog: Well, I can only repeat. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read read.
Paul Holdengräber: And in this period then, what um, what might we benefit reading at this moment?
Werner Herzog: Whatever. I do not want to dictate anything, but go beyond the tweets and go beyond the Facebook short exchanges and go beyond, beyond the chatrooms and don't read the chatrooms. Just go and read the things that you always wanted to read and never did it. You have the chance now.
Paul Holdengräber: You know, it's very interesting at this moment. Some books have become extremely popular. For instance, for instance, "The Plague" by Albert Camus, people are -
Werner Herzog: Yeah, it's interesting. Yes. And that's a quintessential book because it deals with a, with a deep human aspect of it, with a philosophical aspect of it, with absurdity and nihilism reigning and in still doing the right thing.
Paul Holdengräber: Yeah. And you know, I mean, there's a whole list of books that are being submitted now, Saramago, Camus, Boccaccio, you know, people are even turning to to the Greeks to to think about, you know what, what, how, how did they in a way deal with pandemics and with plagues? And I think so much also of some of your - your films which have dealt directly with isolation, be it "Into the Abyss" or "Death Row" or "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser". So isolation is a theme that has been with you for forever, one might say,
Werner Herzog: Well, isolation is one thing, but the deeper step is an existential solitude, and that's what what I'm more after. That's more fascinating for me. Because the Hauser is about an existential solitude and my new feature film, which I shot in Japan, "Family Romance" is about deep solitude, where people rent friends that are absent with their agencies who rent friends and family members missing. And it's something which is coming at us, with or without coronavirus.
Paul Holdengräber: The question I think that is on everybody's mind is how will life...be. When this too, will pass,
Werner Herzog: It will resume and there will be a cultural memory, like we have a cultural memory of the European plagues in 1338, 40 or so, that there is some some sort of a deep echo inside of us and this will be renewed. We we will understand it. Our collective existence is, is a fragile one. And our presence on this planet is fragile.
Paul Holdengräber: And nature has has the last word.
Werner Herzog: You know, not only nature, sometimes we can have us last words. We can inflict, we can inflict our own doom upon us, but ultimately it's nature that does the job. It's microbes, a very big meteorite hitting and then it's going to be over.
Paul Holdengräber: I remember so, so vividly when when we once spoke and and you spoke precisely of all the organisms that will survive us, that we as a species will disappear so much quicker.
Werner Herzog: Yeah, of course there are more robust species out there. Reptiles, of course, they are much more robust in their tenure, much longer life in evolution. Or cockroaches. Of course, they can even withstand a nuclear blast. They can absorb radioactivity. And then, of course, microbes, microbes two kilometers underground who are in a state of suspended animation. And they may come to life and do something funny to us.
Paul Holdengräber: Something that comes through my mind now these days, is to all these new forms of conviviality that in a way were exotic until most recently, like the phone, people have not used the phone the way they're using it now. It's coming back in some form or fashion because we, we we feel the need to hear the grain of the voice of other people.
Werner Herzog: Yeah, well I see that, but since I do not have a cell phone, you are calling me on a landline. I do have an old fashioned landline with a cable into the wall. I have meaningful conversations via email, for example, or discourse by email. But I'm not on social media, of course.
Paul Holdengräber: And never will be.
Werner Herzog: No, that's not my thing. I mean, to - if I said into reading, into poetry, into other forms of communication, my kitchen table holding six. That's my my social medium. That's my platform. And I do believe that what we are seeing now may originate new forms, old forms of culture like voice conversation, which is not practiced that much anymore or like in cultures they come around. It's like beginning of culture. The plague hit Florence. Young people flee to the countryside into an abandoned estate. And now storytelling begins. Everyone has to tell a story each night. And it goes through exactly 10 days, so you have got hundred stories and it's like a beginning of culture, beginning of storytelling.
Paul Holdengräber: So in your in your wildest dreams, which I know you have during the day and not at night, in your wildest dreams, the beginning of culture after this pandemic would look like what?
Werner Herzog: People huddling together and sharing warmth, and sharing, sharing stories. Singing songs. That's what culture is all about. You know, the collective, a collective agitation of mind and everybody around me that I see is in a state of agitation. And that's a good side effect of what we are witnessing.
Paul Holdengräber: What are you reading for the moment?
Werner Herzog: Quite a few things. I'm rereading an obscure Greek historian, the order of Cyclase for specific reasons, and I've gotten into reading Alexander von Humboldt. He's traveled to South America in 1801, 1802. Very fascinating - to the Orinoco, into Mexico and other places. And I'm reading poetry, Pasternak. So I have a whole book and I want to go to read the Book of Job again. I've read it, reread it, reread it, reread it, and I want to reread Daniel Defoe's "A Journal of the Plague Year".
Paul Holdengräber: Yeah.
Werner Herzog: It's 1722 essay about the plague year, was 1665, and he was a little child. But he writes as if he had been there, it's all invented, and yet it is the deepest, most accurate, most truthful description of a plague year.
Paul Holdengräber: How is that possible?
Werner Herzog: Well he researched a lot, but it's imagination also in research, in the indelible images, he describes a big square outside of parliament where there's a wheat field. All of a sudden corn is growing, wheat is growing. And I do remember I have flashes of, of images from Daniel Defoe, and in my opinion, it points to what I always try to find - a deeper truth that is partially achieved by invention. It's an illuminated look at the plague.
Paul Holdengräber: Look at it head on.
Werner Herzog: Yes. And it also through a detour in imagination and invention. And you see the deeper truth, because the deeper truth is an invented one like Michelangelo's Pieta, Jesus in her lap is the tormented man of faith as a 33 year old man. His mother is 17. Of course, that's a gross distortion. The mother of a 33/one year old man is not 17, but it gives us a deeper truth about the Virgin Mary and the man of sorrows. In, I came across, some time I have to tell you it's wonderful. I did have some "Family Romance" in Japan about where you can rent friends. And so after I did the film, the leading character who runs the agency was interviewed by NHK, the national TV. And he was asked, Can you provide us one of your clients? And he said, Yeah, there is somebody who has been in deep solitude and he rented a friend from us. And it turned out that this rented, that this client was actually also an actor, an imposter from the stable of of the company and the TV station had to apologize in public, which is terrible in Japan. And you see the leading character, he was reprimanded for it and he defends himself. And now comes the interesting part. He says If I had sent him a real client, a man deeply in solitude, asking for renting a friend he would in order to save his face, have told a lie. He would have told a benign version of his depth of solitude. He would not have spoken the truth. But I sent you an impostor, and this impostor has done the job 220 times, and he knows what he's talking about, and he gave you the real truth. And I think he's totally right. The imposter there is the one who gives the truth, not the real person who asked for an impostor.
Paul Holdengräber: It's an extraordinary story and and this film is coming out now.
Werner Herzog: Yes, that's - well, I'm affected like everyone else. Not only this film, I have two theatrical premieres of two separate films coming up, one in the United Kingdom - "Family Romance". I think next week, of course, it's not going to happen. And in the United States, "Nomad: In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin", the film about Bruce Chatwin, also a theatrical premiere. Forget about it. It's not going to happen, but I take it with stoicism. It is, as it is, the films will outlive the virus.
Paul Holdengräber: What do you think Chatwin might have said at this moment?
Werner Herzog: That's hard to say, he would have been absolutely fascinated and he would have been the one who would have started a new Decameron, a new capsule for everyone to tell the stories.
Paul Holdengräber: Do you think you might do that?
Werner Herzog: No. Well, I do have quite a few stories coming at me with vehemence, and I'm just trying to to ward them off and giving them some shape and have an organized approach to them. I cannot do everything at once, but we'll see. We'll see wonderful stories coming out.
Paul Holdengräber: Werner it's such a pleasure always to talk to you, even in these dark times. Always, always inspiring. And I I look forward to which, which stories you will be telling after this pandemic is over.
Werner Herzog: Yeah, and good luck with this with this format that you have. And hang on and stay safe.
Paul Holdengräber: All right. I will do my best. You too.
Werner Herzog: All right. Bye bye. Bye.