Werner Herzog Hypnotizes Chickens

By Paul CullumAugust 28, 2012

Werner Herzog Hypnotizes Chickens

Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass by Werner Herzog and Alan Greenberg

“I cannot hear what you say for the thunder that you are.”

from The White Diamond (2004)

“THE ENORMITY OF THEIR flat brain, the enormity of their stupidity, is just overwhelming. You have to do yourself a favor when you’re out in the countryside and you see a chicken: Try to look a chicken in the eye with great intensity, and the intensity of stupidity that is looking back at you is just amazing. By the way, it’s very easy to hypnotize a chicken; they are very prone to hypnosis, and in one or two films I have actually shown that.”

This brief monologue from a video directed by Siri Bunford (who has done at least one KFC commercial) encapsulates much of what we associate with Werner Herzog: His instinctive distrust of nature (including human nature) as a cruel and brutal aggressor; the enigmatic quality of his private obsessions; and the dogmatic certitude with which he expresses them, often bordering on the comical. All three are most memorably on display in the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams, about the torturous making of Fitzcarraldo (and rendered in brilliant self-parody in Zack Penn’s mock documentary Incident at Loch Ness), but they’re always present — whether in the bug-eyed tyranny of Klaus Kinski, or in the long line of everyman eccentrics and dreamers the director uses to hold a mirror up to nature — taking comfort in the reflection of himself he finds there.

Herzog does in fact hypnotize chickens — in Signs of Life, his first feature (soldiers in an isolated garrison descend into madness) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (aka Every Man for Himself and God Against All: an insular visionary, raised in isolation, is assimilated into a small town before being mysteriously murdered). They also make memorable cameos in Stroszek (a dancing chicken in an arcade novelty bears witness to the final carnage) and especially Even Dwarfs Started Small, where they peck out one another’s eyes, parade about with trophy mice in their beaks and use the cover of social chaos to cannibalize their fallen comrades. Not to mention Heart of Glass, the subject of a new memoir by screenwriter-photographer-documentarian Alan Greenberg cryptically titled Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass — although the animal in question, clutched by the village idiot in a crowded pub — may be more duck than chicken.

Published as a production diary under the eponymous title Heart of Glass at the time of the film’s 1976 release, Greenberg’s text has now been revised with the benefit of hindsight, if not an overflowing character bible to crib from: His protagonist easily dovetails with our image of a director who is routinely shot at during interviews and pulls Joaquin Phoenix to safety from his overturned vehicle, and whose most commercially successful film is about Timothy Treadwell, a would-be filmmaker who befriends wild Alaskan bears at his own peril. This handsome Chicago Press Review edition intersperses Greenberg’s essay with his unpublished photos and Herzog’s original screenplay, which occupies roughly 75 pages of the 200-page book, and they share authorship. Herzog’s stories, explanations and unprovoked opinions included therein can also be found in competing versions on the commentary track of the Heart of Glass DVD, throughout the Paul Cronin-edited Faber and Faber volume Herzog on Herzog and from the director himself, if you ask him, as I have on occasion.

“To be frank, I had hesitation about the book Heart of Glass, because I did not like the tone of adulation toward me,” Herzog writes in an Afterword, implicitly endorsing this more nuanced portrait. “As I gaze at events and persons who are like a distant echo, I myself do not recognize the young man I used to be.”

Heart of Glass remains Herzog’s one defiantly enigmatic film — it’s impossible to escape the word — falling historically between Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek. Both starred Bruno S. (nee Schleinstein), the street musician and actor who died two years ago, who was mistakenly institutionalized for much of his childhood, and whose somnambulant screen presence seems extended here to virtually the entire cast. When the foreman of a glassworks in a small Bavarian village dies with the secret of its signature “ruby glass,” knowledge that is essential to both the town’s livelihood and identity, its residents are soon pitched over into despair and madness, culminating in a fire set by its owner that engulfs the now-idle factory. When a cowherd and mystic named Hias (short for Matthias, and based on one or more 18th Century Bavarian mystics) predicts these events, he is attacked and imprisoned by the villagers.

Working from a loose, impressionistic script partially based on a chapter in the novel The Hour of Death by German filmmaker and painter Herbert Achternbusch (who plays the Bavarian Chicken Hypnotizer in Kaspar Hauser), Herzog’s highly improvisational strategy produces numerous moments that might seem intentionally absurd: An old man who has been seated in the same chair for 12 years finally rises to witness the fire, only to find that he has misplaced his shoes. A man kills his best friend in a drunken brawl, then retrieves the body to dance with it. A dead girl is sequestered in a closet where a harpist serenades her corpse (a gag that almost seems lifted from Woody Allen’s Bananas). The village idiot cradles the aforementioned duck-chicken hybrid in a crowded pub as a disembodied arm and outstretched index finger emerge from beyond the frame to form a spindle, on which she spins in place. Even the dialogue is so fraught with inadvertent poetry as to tempt the ridiculous: “Glass has a fragile soul. It is unstained. A crack is the Sin; after the Sin, there is no sound.” Or the more concise “the chaos of the stars makes my head ache.” Yeah, me too, pal.

Hungarian Headache

And yet what seems absurd on the page is often tragic, even operatic on screen. This may be attributed in large part to the director’s decision to hypnotize his entire cast, save for the glassblowers working with temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (it proving too dangerous) and Hias the cryptic seer, whose proclamations represent a clarifying light in a thick cotton of fog. That is to say, Herzog’s casting process consisted primarily of putting ads in German newspapers, screening respondents for susceptibility and stability and then using the power of suggestion to sculpt performances out of trance-borne civilians. Comparing hypnosis to acupuncture — a mechanical procedure whose physical explanation eludes us but whose application is straightforward — Herzog initially worked with a professional hypnotist bearing the positively Nabokovian name of Thorwald Dethlefsen (which Greenberg initially hears as “death lesson”), and who he fires early on for the crime of “New Age babble.” (Certain aspects of the hypnotist’s behavior reportedly made it into Tim Roth’s characterization of Erik Jan Hanussen, “Hitler’s Jewish mystic,” in Invincible.)

Herzog himself then took over the role of hypnotist and claims to have gotten so good at it that by the end of the production, he could transition his actors from one state to the other in 15 seconds, and was forced to adopt an artificial voice when giving instructions to the crew, lest the entire cast try to follow them automatically. After screening his features Fata Morgana and Aguirre, Wrath of God for audiences whom he had placed under hypnosis, which convinced him he could tap directly into his actors’ subconscious, he briefly considered adding a prologue in which he would hypnotize the theater audience directly from the screen, before abandoning the idea as profoundly irresponsible.

What he lacked in technique, he made up for in the quality of his suggestion, surreptitiously setting a bar that even the most humble subject labored to surpass. Encouraging a man who cleaned the police stables to create an imaginary poem, he gave these instructions:

“You are on a foreign island, the first who has set foot on the island in centuries. It is overgrown now with jungles, butterflies, strange birds singing, and you are walking through the jungle and you come across a gigantic cliff. And upon closer inspection, this entire escarpment is made completely of emeralds, [where] a holy monk hundreds of years ago spent his whole life with a chisel and a hammer scratching a poem into the walls. It’s hard like diamond; it took all his life to engrave only three lines in a poem. Please open your eyes and you will see it; you will be the first one to see it, and you will read it to me.” When the man protested he didn’t have his glasses, Herzog encouraged him to move closer and he would be able to read it. His poem began: “Why can’t we drink the moon? Why is there no vessel to hold it?”

I’d like to get that as a tattoo.

Credit: Alan Greenberg

Dispelling the notion that hypnosis can compel its subjects to violate their principles, or even to always speak truthfully (it is not accepted in any court in the world), Herzog argues that rather than circumscribe the actors or make them easier to control, it actually expands the bounds of possibility:

“The story of a village community in Bavaria that walks straight into a foreseen and foretold disaster, almost like a community of sleepwalkers, needed a specific stylization,” he argues in the Afterword. Memory and imagination function better under hypnosis; language is more formal and stylized. He extends this trance state even to the act of directing, claiming he often worked whole days without remembering anything about them, “as if I had been at a drunken party and somehow got home without being aware of it.”

“Chance is the lifeblood of cinema,” he announces elsewhere.

The result is a film in which everyone moves as if underwater and speaks in David Byrne or REM lyrics. Herzog cites two films in particular as direct influences: Morley Markson’s The Tragic Diary of Zero the Fool, which stars a theater troupe from a lunatic asylum in Canada, and Jean Rouch’s Les Maitres Fou, where Ghanian laborers ingest a hallucinogenic potion and reenact the arrival of the British royals, and in fact the film seems like nothing so much as some bastard union of the Wooster Group and Cheech and Chong.

Much has been made of the influence of Aguirre, Wrath of God on Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now — the madness in the jungle that subsumes characters and filmmakers alike, as well as the repetition of specific images (a helicopter and a boat suspended in trees, visible from the river; or the final image in Aguirre of monkeys swarming over a deserted ship, repeated with the abandoned sampan in the latter and visible in bootlegged outtakes). But the much larger influence may come from Heart of Glass — in the intentional derangement of the senses of Capt. Willard in his hotel room (Martin Sheen films the scene drunk and famously cuts his hand badly while punching a mirror), or in the excruciatingly deliberate rhythms of the Kurtz compound scenes and Brando’s weird, glistening improv dialogue (“…like I was shot by a diamond bullet right through my forehead”), which he claims in his autobiography was the deepest into character he ever traveled. In Herzog’s hands, hypnosis becomes one more investigation into his famed ecstatic truth to be found in the untrammeled byways of extreme experience.

Greenberg makes a momentary appearance in Heart of Glass — presumably un-hypnotized — as one of half a dozen figures chosen to carry the remains of the ruby glass to market, appearing alongside Herzog and a cross-section of his closest friends, many of them now long gone.

“And so many others died,” the director says in the final paragraph of the book. “At night the trees disappear. I hear them speak in the book. I see them all back alive and full of enthusiasm, following me on a wild project which stands alone among so many other wild enterprises of my life.”

Greenberg is one of those filmmakers — like Les Blank, Errol Morris, and Harmony Korine — who periodically pass within Herzog’s orbit and emerge bearing his stamp of approval. His 1982 documentary Land of Look Behind set out to capture the funeral of his friend Bob Marley at the invitation of his family, but charted a parallel leisurely walkabout through Cockpit Country and Trelawney Parish, the daunting “District Known by the Name of Look Behind,” as it’s designated on maps, where sinkholes and sudden cliffs lurk around every blind corner and wild forces gather. It also contains long uninterrupted monologues from the likes of Mutabaruka and Gregory Isaacs that seem to bear an influence on Herzog’s subsequent American-based TV documentaries on the likes of evangelist Dr. Gene Scott (God’s Angry Man) and Brooklyn Pentecostal preacher Bishop Huie Rogers (Huie’s Sermon). Land of Look Behind was shot by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, the cinematographer on 18 Herzog films, including Heart of Glass and La Soufriere a year later, in which the pair scaled a live volcano on the island of Guadaloupe that was set to erupt, in the world’s largest game of Russian Roulette. Greenberg has also worked with Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci, worked on early drafts of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde and his unproduced script for Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnston was published by Da Capo Press.

It may be that any book on a single film has its secret virtues, the close reading for once matching the filmmaking effort in time and intensity. Nor is it necessary that the film in question be particularly good: De Palma’s herniated Bonfire of the Vanities produced Julie Salomon’s cautionary tale The Devil’s Candy; Michael Cimino’s sprawling Heaven’s Gate spawned Stephen Bach’s Final Cut (written by the executive who actually oversaw its profligacy); and John Huston’s arguably stillborn The Red Badge of Courage produced the first classic of the genre, Lillian Ross’s Picture. And unlike novelizations or making-ofs, if the original is a classic, the nonfiction prose account often seems just added value, as evidenced by Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log, Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and (for all its controversy and crankiness) Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book, not to mention practically anything in the BFI series. The fact that Greenberg is a careful and inspired writer only adds to the enterprise.

Greenberg met Herzog at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, where the director recognized in him an incendiary mix of idealism and recklessness and quickly pressed him into service, telling him, “There’s work to be done — and we will do it well.” Two days later, this had somehow mutated into, “You, too, will be held accountable.” Very quickly, as captured in a breathless, downhill prose, the chaos of filmmaking soon becomes inseparable from the vortex of the filmmaker, around which everything else circles and seems in danger of disappearing into. The result, at least as recounted in this single, oddly fashioned production cycle, seems as animated and hyperbolic as anything in the Hunter S. Thompson canon, for example.

The narrative account is so overflowing with readymade omens and portents as to border on science-fiction: It begins with a pigeon flying into the author’s head and ends with the director bent over a lamb crushed beneath the wheel of his car, prepared to cut its throat like Abraham was Isaac, only to watch it snap to and bound away across an open field, “Munich rumbling from a distant earthquake.” In-between, there are bloody lamb placentas, burning cows, shattered mirrors, whirlwinds, fornicating horses (interrupted by young girls dressed as angels), monstrous pigs, hornless deer, a hound with one red ear and a stag that bolts in front of their car. Like the ruby glass, with its suggestions of rose-colored glasses, glass houses, ruby slippers — even the blood of a virgin, to the mad factory owner who murders his housekeeper and destroys the glassworks by conflagration — there is meaning everywhere, none of it grounded in anything.

Young HerzogCredit: Alan Greenberg

You could spend your whole life making films — and Herzog himself has tried — and not invent a character as complex or endearing as Werner Herzog. Born in Munich in late 1942 just as the war was preparing to turn, Herzog was spirited to the small mountain village of Sachrang on the Austrian border two months after his birth when a bomb obliterated the house next door. (Heart of Glass may well be the director’s most autobiographical film — the title in German, “Herz aus Glas,” sounds like “Herzog’s Glass,” and it was filmed in the Bavarian countryside of his youth, with Bavarian yodeling and medieval string music, and the actors speaking in Bavarian dialect.) There he grew up in pronounced isolation — he saw his first movie at 11 and made his first phone call at 17 — presumably free from the exfoliating irony he still professes to be incapable of recognizing. He once entertained himself in the hospital for a week with a single thread pulled from a blanket, and given a piece of chewing gum by a conquering GI, chewed it consistently for the next eight months.

This kind of free-floating obsessiveness could, for example, allow someone to create a 30-second shot, seen in the opening montage of naturalist tableaux, of mountain fog flowing like a river, which took 11 days to shoot, a frame at a time. In fact, one of the pristine joys of this book is measuring the mythology of the filmmaker, much of it no doubt self-generated, against the demands of working with real-world consequences, a talent he has obviously mastered. This is, after all, a man who surmised after his first meeting with would-be Hollywood financiers that such people would waste his life, and he never pursued the illusion of easy money again — a lesson that most filmmakers never learn.

“A man who is a coward with his body is a coward with his mind as well,” says Herzog in one of his many asides — if staunch declarations can be termed asides — seconds before he descends into the treacherous Via Mala gorge carrying a heavy Arriflex camera. Repeatedly, Herzog is the first into any dangerous or difficult situation — operating a second camera at the edge of a burning building, carrying a heavy piece of furniture back downstairs after every take — as well as an inadvertent lightning rod for incipient chaos. On their first location scout, Herzog and his production manager-cum-enforcer Walter Saxer, who we see later shrieking with delight as a fisherman’s daughter stoves in the head of a huge pike, leave Greenberg in the van at a local apartment complex, motor running, while they grab two rifles out of the back for a chat with a producer who owes them money. They drive a recalcitrant actor back into town, only to pull over at a scenic overlook, the director telling his fixer, “OK, Walter, this is going to look like an accident.” And in a scene reminiscent of a famous anecdote from Even Dwarfs Started Small, Herzog offers to swim across a river and back underneath the ice if his cast will tolerate a rare fourth take. He steals shots in a cemetery by posing his crew as a grieving funeral procession; elicits a taped confession from Clemens Scheitz, the old man from Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, by dressing his soundman up as a priest; and refuses a fisherman’s demand of $200 to row them 10 miles to a nearby island, then gets the man’s brother to do it for $40. By the time Greenberg treks through snowy wastes barefoot, having lost his shoes just to get a shot, the demand seems quite reasonable.

But on occasion, flashes of something darker show through, insinuating a private logic which often imprisons those of less hearty stock:

Without provocation, Herzog launches into tirades on St. Nicholas, cannibalism, the coming media plague, a 15-minute Hamlet (two years before Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet hit Broadway) and Zorn’s lemma, a mathematical proposition I couldn’t begin to explain to you. On the island of Crete filming Signs of Life, he spent four hours under his bed convinced fighter jets had mounted an attack against him, in an incident that may or may not have occurred. Watching for a road sign for the small Bavarian town of Thusis, Herzog becomes so violently overcome with an irrational dread that he is forced to run into an open field for the emotion to abate. “I don’t think it’s very healthy,” he says recounting the story later. “This will come to a bad end.”

“Herzog must ground himself,” his set designer observes. “He must not stray. Or else, like the Americans, he’ll become abstract.”

Herzog is that most entertaining brand of intellectual — Norman Mailer and Camille Paglia come to mind — whose autodidacticism and breathtaking scope of interests all seem merely the long way home to self-discovery, like sailing to Catalina and then China and Africa beyond just to get to La Cienega. The Bavarian landscapes in this film merge seamlessly with locations in Alaska, Yellowstone, Monument Valley and the western coast of Ireland because he can summon them from memory. He may be one of the most widely traveled individuals ever — jungles, deserts, mountains, the South Pole, all seven continents — and yet it’s the same journey many writers and thinkers make without leaving their study: Boring through the caprock of the cerebral cortex to see what mineral strains and noble gases are trapped there within its marbled fissures.

“Everything goes into him,” his mother says on the set, recalling his odd, insular childhood. “If it comes out, it comes out transformed.”

Credit: Alan Greenberg

As a final coda, the film switches to Great Skellig Island, a sheer crag rising out of the Atlantic at one of the westernmost points of Ireland, for the cowherd’s final vision. In voiceover, he tells us the island was once inhabited by a race of men so removed from the world around them that they still believe the world was flat. After years of gazing out to sea, the boldest among them expresses doubts. Eventually, he is joined by others. They set out, “pathetic and senseless, in a boat that is far too small,” to see if there really is an abyss. The final line of the film, and the most enigmatic because it hangs there stenciled on a horizonless sky, tells us, “It may have seemed like a sign of hope that the birds followed them out into the vastness of the sea.” What Greenberg contributes to the tale is that the residents of Great Skellig Island were 7th century Benedictine monks who had gone there for a better view of the Apocalypse, and their vigil was cut short when Vikings threw them into the sea.

Following Herzog to that final perilous summit, Greenberg chooses this moment to ask his mentor, “What do you think of the auteur theory?” As the ocean wind whips his words away, he has to repeat the question several times. It turns out the director has never heard of it.

“Film is not the art of scholars but illiterates,” Herzog declares at one point. “Movies come from the country fair and circus, not from art and academicism.” Elsewhere, he confides to his protege, “Only ugly runts like us create the beautiful things.”

Yet it remains the glassblowers and the seer — the technicians and the visionary — who ultimately refuse to sleepwalk through the film, even as the villagers cling to their stupor and the financier’s madness makes their catastrophe inevitable. Those who pursue their vision, even at great peril or fortified with the anodyne of hope, ultimately have no choice; they are cursed with clarity. Take comfort in those that follow you.

“I’ve been hurting since I bought the gimmick about something called love,” says Iggy Pop in “Lust for Life,” written with David Bowie in April 1977, a year after Heart of Glass, holed up in a studio in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and consciously channeling William Burroughs’s Dr. Benway in The Ticket That Exploded, a blanket indictment of all the Control Addicts who willingly fall for the striptease of liquor, drugs, sex, advertising and all the other misdirection and carny spiel designed to keep us entranced, himself included. “Well, that's like hypnotizing chickens.”

In Heart of Glass’s penultimate sequence, the one preceding the Great Skellig Island scene, Hias is credited by his cellmate, the mad factory owner, with possessing the heart of glass of the title. But Herzog himself is not so sure.

“If Hias does have this heart of glass, it means that he is translucent,” he says. “It means that he cannot associate in a warm way with other people because, as a seer, or as one who looks over and through such things, he has to keep some distance from them. And that makes him very lonely. He doesn’t have many human relations.”

Hias is released from jail and leaves the village. He repairs to a cave in the woods, where he wrestles with an invisible bear that only he can see. When asked in the DVD commentary what this sequence means, the director is for once strangely without an opinion: “I can’t explain,” he says finally.

To offer a bit of regional folk wisdom gleaned from growing up in a hardscrabble land: “Some days you get the bear; some days the bear gets you.” Timothy Treadwell would be the first to tell you that. Life is struggle, with about a fifty percent success rate. Get out ahead of the zero, bring more than you take, and that’s a pretty good life. Werner Herzog may not be able to articulate that principle when it claws its way out of his subconscious. But he’s a poster child for it.


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LARB Contributor

Paul Cullum is a writer and journalist living in Los Angeles. He has written extensively for the L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Film Threat, Arthur, Black Clock, and hundreds of other marginally subversive magazines.


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