A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin

A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin



The Pequod Review:

Werner Herzog is an accomplished filmmaker, but he is not really a film buff (he claims to only watch around three movies a month) and his interests vary widely — across philosophy, music, literature and art. He turns this to the reader's benefit in his wide-ranging interview collection, A Guide to the Perplexed. The book's interviews were conducted with Paul Cronin over the course of many years, and cover everything from his love of classical music (Carlo Gesualdo, Johannes Ciconia, Heinrich Schutz) to the adventurous settings of his films to the visual artists that have most influenced him (Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, John Martin). Still, the best parts of the book are when Herzog gets into the craft of his filmmaking:

Look at the opening moments of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser with the boat, the tower and the washerwoman. Some of those shots were filmed with a telephoto lens, on top of which I mounted a wide-angle lens, which gives an eerie quality. These images might not make strict sense in terms of the story, but they acquire a dynamic internal logic when accompanied by an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Listen carefully to the soundtrack during the lengthy shot of the windmills in Signs of Life, which is as important as the imagery. I started by taking the recording of nearly a thousand people clapping at the end of a concert, then distorting it electronically until it sounded like pieces of wood clacking together. I added another sound, what you hear when you put your ear on a telegraph pole and the wind passes through the wires. As children we called it "angel song." This constructed soundtrack doesn't physically alter the thousands of windmills or the landscape, but it does change the way we look at them. This is what I have always tried to render in my films: a new perspective, one that touches us deeper than realistic sounds and images. Such things are beyond verbal explanation; combining images with music is a wholly intuitive process. The point is that there is no such thing as background music in my films. It's always an integral part of the whole.

He also has wise words for aspiring filmmakers:

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.


It’s possible to learn to play an instrument as an adult, but the intuitive qualities needed won’t be there; the body needs to be conditioned from an early age. The same could be never said for filmmaking. A musician is made in childhood, but a filmmaker any time.


Who said anything about watching films? I tell the Rogues to read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television lose it. If you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker. Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.

Some of the interviews have too much personal fluff — a more rigorously edited version was released separately, and it is likely a superior book — but on the positive side Herzog's verbosity allows his charming and restless personality to shine through. Recommended.