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Interview: Herzog defies death for his films

CANNES, France -- This world we live in is a very small place, and if you are lucky the pain and the pleasure are only an airline flight apart. I'm having lunch with Werner Herzog, the West German film director. The day before, he flew into Cannes for the premiere of his new film. Two days before that, he was in the jungles of Nicaragua, talking to a deep-eyed 10-year old boy carrying an M-16 assault rifle. Now we sit in the sunlight, eating fresh strawberries.

Herzog has become the great nomad of modern film directors. He has hardly made a film in Germany since his early days, preferring to seek out the far corners of the Earth, where people make desperate settlements with nature, the gods, and their own weaknesses. All of his movies are about characters who are obsessed by great visions, and none of his characters is more obsessed than Herzog himself. This is why, for some years, he has been the most interesting filmmaker at work in the world.

Consider the three films that currently occupy his attention. The one he has just finished, "Where the Green Ants Dream," had its premiere Monday as an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival. It is about the confrontation in a godforsaken, heat-baked piece of Australian Outback between a uranium-mining company and a tribe of Aborigines who believe that the land must not be disturbed, because it is the place where the green ants dream, and if the ants are awakened, the world will end.

In Nicaragua, Herzog just finished a documentary about a tribe of Mesquito Indians who took up arms against the government of Somoza ("the first time they have fought since the Spanish conquest") and fought for he revolutionary Sandinistas. They are now being maltreated by the Sandinistas, Herzog says, because of their naïve belief that they own their ancestral homelands. In a way, this is the same fight being waged by the Aborigines in "Where the Green Ants Dream the Green Ants Dream."

In nine days Herzog will fly to Pakistan to shoot a film on the upper slopes of K-2, one of the highest mountains in the world. He hopes to make a feature film on top of a mountain, and considers this project to be a "training film" to teach him how to survive and use camera equipment at high altitudes and freezing temperatures. Today he sits in the sunlight. A waiter pours chilled wine into his glass, he has had the chicken and the French fries, and now the season's first strawberries are set before him. Elsewhere in Cannes, other directors are screening their new films --- movies about third-rate superheroes, sex-crazed stewardesses and dead teenagers. He does not care, he says, whether his film wins a festival prize or not: "Prizes are for horses."

In "Where the Green Ants Dream," he comes closer than usual to telling his story in a straightforward narrative way. Usually his films proceed with the logic of dreams. In the Outback, a mining company hopes to set off a series of explosions and listen to their echoes, in an attempt to pinpoint likely places for uranium. The Aborigines sit passively on the sites of their explosions, refusing to move, insisting that the ants must not be awakened. We meet characters on both sides: the tall, gangly mining engineer, the implacable tribal leaders, the supercilious president of the mining company.

As usual, Herzog finds strong images to dramatize his story. In "Green Ants," we see an old white woman waiting patiently in the Outback, an opened can of dog food on the ground in front of her, waiting for her pet dog to return from being lost in a mine shaft. We see a group of Aborigines sitting in the aisle of a supermarket, on the place where the last tree in the district once stood, the tree where the tribal men traditionally gathered to "dream" their children before conceiving them. We see a lunar landscape with hundreds of pyramids -- leftovers from mineral mines -- strewn all the way to the horizon. We do not see any ants.

"I shot the film in only 28 days," Herzog says, "but I had been thinking about it since 1975, when I first visited Australia. I did not think of it as pro-Aborigine, or anti-mining company, but simply about a conflict between two sets of values. In fact, the "beliefs" of the Aborigines in the film are not their beliefs, but mine: I made up all of their legends about green ants and tribal trees, because I would not presume to make a movie about their real beliefs. It would take me years to understand them. The film is not anthropologically correct abut Aborigines, or biologically correct about green ants."

The real conflict in the film seems to be between people who sit and wait, inspired by deep currents of faith, and those who are always sin motion, convinced that success lies through industry and activity. As the mining company and the Australian court system race through a dizzying series of "negotiations" and court bearings, the Aborigines, bemused, listen to their dreams -- and so does the immaculately dressed little old lady, who waits beneath a parasol for her pet to return.

Herzog's previous film was "Fitzcarraldo," an awesome undertaking that told the story of a man determined to drag a steamship overland from one river system to another, and make his fortune selling rubber from the interior of South America. He wanted to use the rubber to build an opera house in the jungle. The story of Herzog's struggle to make the film, and his insistence on dragging a real ship up a real hill, has become the stuff of legend -- and of a harrowing documentary by Les Blank, "Burden of Dreams," in which Herzog seems half-mad as he explains his plans in the jungle while poisoned arrows pick off his men, planes crash, and engineers tell him the cables on the ship will snap and decapitate everybody.

As Herzog talks about the film he has just finished in Nicaragua, it sounds even more dangerous. Without any credentials or permissions to be in Nicaragua at all, hew flew to Honduras and slipped across the border with a small film crew and a bodyguard unit he describes, somewhat cryptically, as "four crack sharpshooters." They worked behind the guerrilla lines in the civil war, filming the story of a Mesquito Indian tribe that originally backed the Sandinistas against the Somoza regime, but is now -- Herzog charges -- being fought by the Sandinistas.

Typically, Herzog did not make his film for political reasons, and he says he is not much interested in the political situation in Nicaragua. It was the dynamic of the conflict that attracted him.

"I met a little child with an assault rifle. 'What's your name?' I asked. I learned his name and his village, and that his brothers had been killed and he was avenging them. Later, I saw a young girl, about 15, leave the village in the morning with a rifle, and return at night triumphant, because she had traded it for a chicken. To talk about this in political or military terms is insane. It is about a traditional culture being ripped apart by the introduction of instruments of killing. Without the technology -- the rifles, from both East and West -- it might still be a war, but then the newspapers could not see it."

His working title for the film, he said, is "The Ballad of the Mesquitos." It will be organized around music and will not be a political documentary or even an informational film in any conventional sense.

"I don't know if we were in any great danger or not," Herzog says. "The important thing is not to stick our head up at the wrong time. Our four bodyguards were under strict orders not to shoot, because in the jungle any fire draws return fire. We did not care about protecting the camera or the film. If we had been directly attacked by bayonets, he would have shot back."

"I keep thinking," I tell him, "that someday I will have to write your obituary." I mention his troubles filming "Fitzcarraldo," and the legendary time he took a crew onto a Caribbean island to make a film about the only man who stayed behind on the slopes of a volcano about to explode. "You seem to seek out danger almost deliberately," I say.

"I am not seeking danger," Herzog says, "I am just seeking my stories."

He says he will stay in Cannes for a day or two and see some movies, before leaving for K-2.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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