Lying About Lying

Werner Herzog’s Die Zukunft der Wahrheit

“I have always vehemently opposed the misconception that facts are the same as truth,” writes Werner Herzog in his new book.

Colourful diversity? We already have. Neukölln, Berlin.

It’s a point the celebrated German filmmaker has made frequently in recent years, arriving at the same conclusion in a variety of ways.

Now, with Die Zukunft der Wahrheit (The Future of Truth), Herzog has decided to examine it more fully.

The reason, aside from an understandable desire to make retroactive sense of a peripatetic career, can be discerned from the title of the book’s penultimate chapter, “The Post-Truth Era”.

At a time when deep fakes are becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle from what actually happened, the very idea of reality is being turned inside out.

Few artists are better positioned to explore this problem than Werner Herzog.

The 81-year-old has steadfastly refused to choose between traditional narrative cinema and documentary, much like fellow German New Wave director Wim Wenders.

Both men recognised early in their careers that the distinction between those genres has little to do with the one between fiction and non-fiction.

To tell a story, any story, requires making decisions that diverge from the historical record.

First and foremost, the need to compress one’s tale to a manageable length invariably leads to the vast majority of an experience ending up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Events must be conflated. Characters, too. The contents usually get rearranged to maximise their narrative impact.

This is something we all know, on some level, but have been conditioned to forget. Despite its pretence of objectivity and impartiality, the news is comprised of stories, with all that implies.

So is documentary filmmaking.

Maybe the best way to understand Werner Herzog’s remarkable career is his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

It tells the story of a German boy who became an American naval aviator because he was desperate to become a pilot. Shot down over Laos during his first mission in the Vietnam War, Dieter was taken prisoner. Then, after enduring brutal treatment, he somehow managed to escape and find his way to freedom through the jungle.

It’s an incredible tale. So incredible, in fact, that Herzog decided to remake it as a work of fiction with the 2006 Christian Bale vehicle Rescue Dawn.

At first, it might seem that Herzog decided to give himself more freedom since he could invent incidents without worrying about what actually happened.

As he explains in The Future of Truth, however, the documentary form did not constrain Herzog while making Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Herzog describes in detail — and rather gleefully in the German-language audiobook — how the film’s first scene, in which Dieter returns to his Marin County home and performs a strange ritual of repeatedly locking and unlocking doors, was entirely fabricated and how its last scene, which situates Dieter in the middle of a vast aeroplane “graveyard,” was staged for effect, even though Dieter had never visited the location before.

Herzog begins the book by describing how difficult it is to define truth.

“Truth does not appear to me to be anchored in the distance like a fixed star that can one day be reached,” he writes.

“Truth seems rather to inhere in the struggle to get closer to it. As a movement towards it, as an uncertain journey, as a search full of effort and futility. But this journey into the unknown, into the twilight of a large, endless forest, gives us meaning and dignity; it is what sets us apart from the cows in the pasture.”

From Werner Herzog’s perspective, the pursuit of facts represents a betrayal of this quest.

In the recent documentary Radical Dreamer, he succinctly describes the concept of “ecstatic truth” that animates all of his work.

“I start to invent, I start to stylise, but in such a way that it is not lying at you. It gives you an almost ecstasy, a different position. A different perspective, an illumination.”

The use of “at” as an adverb here suggests that Herzog wants to make a distinction between the kind of “lying” that is the essence of all storytelling — leaving things out, rearranging events, reconstructing experiences from inherently faulty human memory — and the kind of conscious deception that is directed at a particular audience to achieve strategic ends.

Although this distinction might not hold up to deconstructive scrutiny on an abstract level, the conviction with which it is communicated is persuasive.

In The Future of Truth, Herzog describes how he began Lessons of Darkness, his incredible film about the burning oil wells of Kuwait, with a quote he attributed to Blaise Pascal, then declares that he wrote it himself.

In his mind, this lie isn’t an example of lying because the deception is made to serve a greater truth.

It’s Werner Herzog’s ethos that makes that claim tenable.

Few artists have done a better job of blurring the line between art and life.

While other famous film directors — Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch — have become characters who cannot be reduced to a particular project, their best work still transcends that celebrity.

It’s different for Herzog. Generally speaking, the more he has tried to filter himself out of a film, the less successful it has been.

The most memorable Werner Herzog films never let us forget they are Werner Herzog films, either because he serves as their narrator or because the stories circulating about their production both precede and supersede the story they tell.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to call him a film director but rather a writer who prefers the multimedia possibilities of cinema over the bare page.

Like his friend Bruce Chatwin, whom he eulogises in his 2019 documentary Nomad, Herzog is first and foremost a storyteller.

Both men worked in the traditional mode described by Walter Benjamin in his essay on the nineteenth-century Russian author Nikolai Leskov.

“The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot,” Herzog declares in Nomad.

At a time when near-instantaneous information communication saturates every corner of the globe, this might seem like an impossibly anachronistic approach to existence.

But that is what makes it so valuable.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.