Legendary film-maker Werner Herzog is no stranger to Iceland. Apart from his recent documentary on the island’s geological turmoil, ‘Into The Inferno,’ he also has an abiding love for the medieval document the Codex Regius—also known as the Poetic Eddas of the Icelanders. He recently started his own Rogue Film School, which attracted international attention, not least of all for being true to its name in teaching, amongst other things, how to pick locks and forge shooting permits.
Herzog returned to Iceland recently as a guest of honour for the Reykjavík International Film Festival. We were able to catch him for a few minutes before he joined the teeming throng downstairs at Hlemmur Square.
“That’s what I do,” he tells us, when asked about the impetus for the path his life has taken. “It was a decision of whether I should accept my destiny, which became very clear when I was an adolescent, and I decided I would do this work. It would not be an easy life, but that’s it.”
The decision to start the Rogue Film School was made for practical as well as idealistic reasons.
“The Rogue Film School is a consequence of a huge avalanche that is coming at me for two, maybe three decades,” Herzog says. “Young people want to learn from me. I had the feeling that I don’t really have anything to teach. It’s much better to start a discourse and give a more organised answer. Because if today, I would announce publicly, let’s say over the internet, that I’m searching for interns, I would have 15,000 people coming at me. I’m just guessing, but it’s probably a huge amount. And I try to give a systematic answer. Of course, it is called the Rogue Film School because it’s a very guerrilla-style approach to filmmaking. Self-reliance seems like something which you do not learn in film school. It’s very depressing what’s happening in film schools right now.”
Is this, then, what is missing from modern filmmaking, this sense of daring and adventure, to strike out fearlessly into the unknown? Herzog, as always, rejects generalisation.
“‘Modern filmmaking’ is not really acceptable as a term,” he says. “Because you have a variety of filmmaking. Just six weeks ago I was acting in one of these gigantic American fantasy film productions, something like a 150-200 million dollar production. All of the sudden you’re in a field where filmmaking or acting is completely different. Of course, it has to be taken seriously and I’m curious about it, because you’re functioning as an actor with motion recording. You have points on you that record your motions and your facial expressions. You are in a body suit. You have a helmet on. You’re talking to actors who have done their parts six weeks before you arrived. There’s nobody, and you have to find eyelines, and you still have to understand what you are doing. So this kind of filmmaking is completely distinct from what I would normally do or what others would do. You’re going to different countries anywhere, and there’s a local identity, like Iranian film, or you name it. Modern film per se does not really exist, and it has never existed as a uniform sort of movement and form of art or communication.”
Werner Herzog, YouTube sensation
In keeping with this nuanced point of view on the medium, Herzog continues to look towards the future.
“I’m quite interested and fascinated by what is coming,” he tells us. “For example, the Internet. My biggest ever success was on YouTube, with a film about texting and driving. It’s had millions of viewers, and now 40,000 high schools in America make it mandatory for those who do their driving license to see this. It’s a form of acting that’s completely digitalised. And I’ve been into 360° immersive virtual reality. I’ve looked into these things although I haven’t made a film like that. Modern film and cinema is shifting, and it has always been shifting.”
Herzog is decidedly uncompromising. He has a vision for what is required to be a great filmmaker, and he expects those who are accepted to the Rogue Film School to understand and abide these elements.
“You cannot really ignite much, but I make a point that those who come to me, who are really filtered out from many, many applicants, that they take it seriously what I try to tell them,” he says.
Holding the sacred codex
If you takes a look at the Rogue Film School, one of the first things that grabs your attention is that there is a required reading list. Amongst the titles that anyone hoping to attend this school must read is the Poetic Eddas of the Icelanders, also known as the Codex Regius. This medieval piece of literature holds a special place in Herzog’s heart. His eyes light up when he’s asked to explain his affection for this work.
“[The Poetic Eddas] is one of my all-time favourite pieces of poetry,” he says. “That’s one of the things I tell those in the Rogue Film School that they have to read. Read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will never be a great filmmaker. Maybe you will become a filmmaker, but a mediocre one at best. I have a mandatory list of five or six books, three or four they have to read, otherwise I throw them out within 15 minutes of the first day. I have read the Poetic Eddas, the Codex Regius, many times, and I have found such great joy with it. I was in Iceland twice. Once in the ‘70s, and now less than two years ago. Both times I held the Codex in my hands. You see when it was brought back from Denmark, on a battleship, half the population of Iceland was waiting at the pier, reciting the poetry, singing and getting drunk for days and days. Only a few years later, I asked, ‘Can I see it? the physical book, because I love it so much.’ I saw it and was allowed to hold it in my hand, and read a little bit into it. I know some passages well. And for the film on volcanoes, again, I’m filming and reciting from the poetry. It’s so much the spirit of Iceland, and so much of what is beyond your own culture and beyond your own nation. There’s something universal in it, and that’s what I ask the Rogue students to read. Of course, it doesn’t have directly to do with filmmaking, but if you really want to become a filmmaker, you really have to read poetry, and you have to read of course the great Russian novels, and you have to read ancient Greek and Latin antiquity. I insist on this.”
It’s at this point that we must say our goodbyes, as dinner awaits him, and he quickly departs. After the photographer and I pack up and head downstairs, we see him seated with his wife in the dining room, reviewing the menu. Moments later, he is greeted by a man who toasts his drink to him. Herzog accepts the toast with a smile.