The German filmmaker Werner Herzog is one of the enigmatic figures of cinema. His movies are eerily outlandish and otherworldly, especially titles like Fata Morgana, Fitzcarraldo, and The Wild Blue Yonder. The director’s predilection and tendency for danger and eccentricity put him in jail during the filming of Fata Morgana, and on another occasion, someone opened fire on him during an interview.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is a short documentary by Les Blank, in which Werner Herzog publicly cooks and eats his shoe, as he promised to do if his friend Errol Morris completes his film Gates of Heaven. Herzog describes Gates of Heaven as “the only authentic film on love and emotions, and late capitalism. Maybe it’s the only authentic film on loss of emotion and distortion of feelings.”
But aside from documenting Herzog’s symbolic support for independent cinema, Les Blank’s film celebrates film through Herzog’s insights into cinema, and through one of filmslie.com’s favorite topics, self-reference.
Werner Herzog on Television
Filmmakers such as Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze have managed to balance TV shows, commercials, and music video clips with creative feature films. It may seem weird that the goofy Spike Jonze from Jackass is the same person who wrote and directed the poetic and fragile Her, but the entertainment industry doesn’t exclude such contradictions.
However, as a highly individualistic and independent art-house filmmaker, Werner Herzog doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of TV shows and commercials.
If you switch the television, it is ridiculous and it’s just destructive. It kills us, the talk shows. They kill our language. So we have to declare holy war against what we see every single day on television, commercials. I think there should be a real war against commercials. Real war against talk shows.
Werner Herzog on Filmmaking
The director sees eating his shoe as a symbolic support for independent filmmakers:
It should be an encouragement for all of you who want to make films and who are scared to just start, who haven’t got the guts, so you can follow a good example.
As he is cooking his shoe in a pot with onions, Herzog humorously says:
I’m quite convinced cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking.
His next quote may seem equally humorous if the director didn’t actually steal a camera from the Munich Film School, which he used for making his first 8 films.
If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock.
But for Herzog, cinema is not a monetary or material art. The director’s discussion of what it takes to make a film is especially relevant in the context of modern film studios. His definition of film as a projection of light invokes Hollis Frampton’s A Lecture.
Money doesn’t make films. You just do it and take the initiative.
[…] I’ve kept wondering ever since I’ve been in contact with audiences and I’ve wondered what the value of film was. And I think, I don’t know, it gives us some insight. Films might change our perspective of things, and ultimately, in the long term, it may something of value. But there’s a lot of absurdity involved in it as well. As you see, it makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone. Just look at Orson Welles.
It’s because what we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light. And doing that all your life makes you just a clown. And it’s an almost inevitable process. It’s illusionist work. And it’s just embarrassing to be a filmmaker and just sit here like this. I mean, thank heavens, I am not sitting for my own films. I am sitting here for a film that was made by a friend of mine. […] Give us adequate images, we like adequate images, our civilization doesn’t have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is gonna die out like dinosaurs if it does not develop an adequate language or adequate images.
For Werner Herzog, the problem of inadequate images is comparable to energy problems and overpopulation.
But generally, it is not understood yet, that a problem of the same magnitude is that we do not have adequate images. And that’s what I’m working on. A new grammar of images.
Self-Reference in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
Since Les Blank’s film is about film, the director uses self-reference to enhance the “filmness.” In one of the scenes, the camera shows the shadow of one of the film crews. In another one, it shows the microphone Werner Herzog is being interviewed with. But unlike Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing where self-reference is a metaphor of an illusory reality, Les Blank uses it more as a celebration of the film art.