Werner Herzog Strives for the 'Ecstatic Truth'

November 2, 2014

The legendary German director Werner Herzog is known around the world for his powerful and innovative feature films and documentaries.  Now he's published a wide-ranging book of essays that he considers some of his finest work.  “Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed" is a 500-page ramble covering Herzog’s career and creative inspiration.

Herzog’s film career now spans some 50 years, and includes such epics as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Nosferatu the Vampyre.” He turned to documentaries more recently, captivating audiences with “Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and others. 'As the late film critic Roger Ebert said, Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”

When he’s making a documentary film he has a specific goal in mind, Herzog tells Steve Paulson.  He’s in search of “the ecstatic truth.”

Truth is something which has to illuminate you. There are moments of almost ecstasy where you step out of yourself and you immediately sense there’s something very, very big. And it becomes part of yourself. And I have coined the term ‘the ecstasy of truth,’ ‘the ecstatic truth.’

For Herzog, "truth” is malleable. The “facts” are not always presented as such in his films, and certain details may be deliberately withheld from viewers. In the 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man,” which chronicles the life and death of wildlife activist and filmmaker Timothy Treadwell, Herzog refused to play the tape that was rolling when Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled to death by a bear.  And he framed the shot very carefully.

I’m filmed only from behind, and you see the face of [Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend] Jewel Palovak, who was a companion and co-founder of [the nonprofit organization] Grizzly People. And she inherited all these tapes…

It’s so terrifying what I heard; [there are] certain things you do not put out to an anonymous audience. You just don’t. And there’s a clear line. And I said only over my dead body, this is going to end up in the film.

Follow the links below to hear the broadcast version of Paulson’s conversation with Herzog, or to download the full, unedited version.