Theaters

Werner Herzog and Ken Burns in Conversation, or When One and One Makes Three

by Katie Kilkenny on September 23, 2013

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Ken Burns (left) speaks with Werner Herzog (right) (all images copyright Jacob Kupferman and used with permission of the Hopkins Center for the Arts unless otherwise noted)

HANOVER, New Hampshire — The Telluride Film Festival, staged in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado every Labor Day weekend, became the setting for an unlikely annual reunion of two powerhouse documentary filmmakers twenty-eight years ago, when Werner Herzog and Ken Burns first converged in the remote mountain town. Burns and Herzog are an almost mythical pairing — prolific filmmakers who document legends and are their own. Both have attended the festival almost every year since, often accompanied by a film. These reunions have long been privy only to those able to venture out to Colorado.

But last Saturday in another small town framed by mountains — here in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley — Herzog and Burns offered a glimpse into the conversation on truth and film they have sustained over the last quarter of a century. The event, called From Grizzlies to Gettysburg: Ken Burns and Werner Herzog Talk Shop, was an extension of the Telluride at Dartmouth program begun by festival co-founder Bill Pence, who is also the Director of Film for the college’s Hopkins Center of the Arts.

Ken Burns + Herzog

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center, where Herzog and Burns spoke, was designed by Wallace K. Harrison, and is considered to have inspired his later design of the Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Herzog had been invited to campus as part of the college’s long-standing Montgomery fellowship, though he did not seem particularly comfortable with the role of distinguished guest. An avowed anti-academic who scorns film school in particular, Herzog kept reminding audiences, from the nine hundred who attended a tribute in his honor to a ten-person luncheon I attended, that he was “hastening at night, like King Lear, into madness, from empty room to empty room” in the house reserved for the college’s Montgomery fellows. His syllabus for aspiring filmmakers is simple — learn to pick locks and forge documents, traverse various countries on foot, box or play basketball, and read, read, read. (When I asked him what he would suggest, he recommended in particular The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker.) It was advice fitting for his image as an adventurer-filmmaker, whose narrations and personal fantasies have compelled viewers just as much as his subjects.

Burns was visibly more at ease addressing a campus audience. With his production company Florentine Films just fifty miles away in Walpole, New Hampshire, Burns regularly previews his documentaries at the college, not to mention his films’ comfortable position on television and syllabuses alike.

20130921-Sep21Variety-113618During their conversation, Herzog was inclined to flights of extended metaphor and imagery. Burns spoke with the eloquence of a man who sifts endlessly through primary sources.

But the dialogue revealed that the two artists have found common ground by defying the practice of cinéma vérité, which maintains a strong hold over documentary filmmaking today. By making the camera visible to the subject, cinéma vérité posits, the filmmaker can access an objective truth. Herzog quotes Jean-Luc Godard on the method: “The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

And yet — “That is a French kind of bon mot bullshit. I don’t buy it. It’s twenty-four times the manipulation a second,” Herzog told the Hopkins Center audience.

“If it is truth twenty-four times a second it must be a priori lying twenty-four times a second,” Burns replied.

“We are not the fly on the wall. We are not the Wal-Mart camera or the camera in the bank, waiting for fifteen years in hope that a robbery occurs,” Herzog said

The divergence from cinéma vérité is perhaps more obvious in Herzog’s oeuvre as it was on Saturday when the Hopkins Center played five-minute compilations of both filmmakers’ works in succession. Herzog’s clip highlighted the abstract aesthetic fetishes that characterize in his documentaries — a severed paw from Grizzly Man (2005), the plumes of fire of Lessons of Darkness (1992) — creating a rapturous kaleidoscope of repeating images. Burns’, on the other hand, was a chronological rundown of his prolific body of work, showcasing his ability to capture historical voices through meticulous curation of pictures, interviews, and narration.

But Herzog’s commentary on Saturday, and the new footage Burns screened for the audience, brought the finer points of Burns’ art into relief. At a documentary symposium years ago, Herzog said Burns was interested in reaching an emotional truth, while he was interested in an ecstatic truth. And when Burns previewed 2014’s The Roosevelts, the way in which Burns leads his audience to experience an emotional core of the past became clearer. The Roosevelts has F.D.R. biographer Geoffrey Ward tell the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt falling prey to polio as he tears up. Burns told the audience he decided not to identify Ward as a polio victim himself — he believed the audience would intuit the man’s condition.

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Herzog approved of this decision. “An audience that is completely into a film and in complete awe doesn’t need a bridge of explanation to accept the next moment that you are showing that is not really in a narrative flow or whatever. Just show it and the awe continues,” he said. Herzog has come under fire from cinéma vérité purists for staging scenes to provoke this awe for his viewers, most famously by fabricating the assertion in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) that a nuclear plant near the Chauvet cave bred albino crocodiles.

The two filmmakers showed clips from upcoming projects side-by-side: the next installment of Herzog’s On Death Row, a portrait of prisoner Blaine Milam, followed by Burns’ Vietnam, a project slated for 2016. Sharing seven breathtaking minutes of selections from an interview with Vietnam veteran John Musgrave, Burns demonstrated to the audience how difficult it is to select which cuts to use. He called this left-out footage “the negative space of creation,” and “a terror of a situation.” Herzog said his Death Row trilogy is haunted by the absence of an interview a prison warden forbade him to film.

To Herzog, for whom the boundaries between documentary and feature film are tenuous, the success of the interview depends entirely on casting. Casting a subject like Musgrave can make a film endure, he said. “It’s finding the right people so that you say, ‘This is gonna be big.’ This man starts to talk, and you never stop the camera,” he said.

KB and WH Image 1

The components that make a film weather time were on both filmmakers’ minds. Herzog is currently investigating options for preserving his films and production materials. Burns hopes that the activist government portrayed in The Roosevelts informs American voters to come. Herzog admired Burns’ work as a document of American existence, a time capsule for the future. Burns in turn said Herzog’s voice was “single, operatic… for the ages.” The mutual admiration was not so much the product of different styles converging. Instead, the two appeared to be trying to reach an accord about what kind of truth could last.

Burns summarized the experience he believed they were searching for. “You look for a different kind of calculus in which you look for one and one — say the word and image, say the phenomenon you see before us, just rational life, which suggests the answer to one and one is two. Well, we seem to be always relentless for those moments when it becomes three,” he said.

From Grizzlies to Gettysburg: Ken Burns and Werner Herzog Talk Shop was held in Spaulding Auditorium at the Hopkins Center for the Arts (Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire) on Saturday, September 21 at 11 am.

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  • punktoad

    How do these things happen?

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