Scholars' Association News
Issue 36
November 2015


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Werner Herzog: Ancient Greek texts guide our civilization until today
Translated and adapted by Leda Bouzali

Werner Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian village. During his childhood he never watched a movie and had no access to cinema or telephone. Today he is regarded as one of the leading figures in German cinema. He directs, writes scripts and has produced more that forty films; he also has published twelve books and has directed another twelve operas. He has been acclaimed for the unique narrative techniques he applies in his films.

On June 16, 2015, Werner Herzog was a guest of Paul Holdengräber in the series Portraits, organized by the Onassis Foundation USA. Holdengräber is an American interviewer, curator and writer, known for organizing literary conversations for the New York Public Library's public program series Live from the New York Public Library. Here we present an extract of the discussion where the German director emphasizes the global importance of ancient Greek history and texts.

P. H.: I’d like to start with one of your very early films, Last Words, one of the first films you made in 1968. You were twenty-four years old. You made that movie at the same time with…

W. H.: … with the Signs of Life, my first long feature film, which I shot to a small part on the island of Crete while most of it was done on the island of Kos. Kos had a great significance for me because my grandfather with whom I had a very deep connection, worked there as an archeologist in the early twentieth century, for eight years. I’ve always felt much closer related to my grandfather than to my own father. The generation of my father has been the generation of the Nazis and I never really could connect. Besides, my physical father was practically all my life absent -he left the family. My grandfather was still young and he would speak about his excavations in Kos; these were the only lucid things that he said towards the end of his life. The last nine or ten years of his life he was increasingly drawn deeper into insanity.

I’ve always felt very close to my grandfather and his impeccable sense of location. He had an incredible sense of finding places on the island of Kos; they would search for the Askleipion and he found it. This is some sort of a quality that I have partially learned, partially somehow inherited, from my grandfather, Rudolf.

P. H.: And that quality is what? How would you describe it?

W. H.: Reading patterns in landscapes, understanding landscapes. This is why I was so fascinated about Hercules Seghers, a Dutch artist, early Rembrandt time, who made small prints, four hundred years ahead of his time, and very mysterious, almost completely abstract landscapes, and yet there were patterns in them. I was looking for patterns, understanding the patterns of a landscape.

P. H.: And in a way one might say four hundred years before some of your films?

W. H.: It always fascinated me: how to read a landscape, how to stage a landscape, how to direct a landscape? Yes, you can direct human beings, actors, and you can direct animals—I do that a lot. The film you mentioned, Last Words, is a film that was done mainly during nighttime, while during day I was shooting Signs of Life. It was about a musician, and I invented a story that he forcefully had to be removed as the last remaining occupant of a small island which was occupied by lepers. What is so strange about the film is that the story is repeated again and again.

I love the kind of music the musician played in the film [Note of translator: Antonis Papadakis who played the leper musician was indeed an excellent lyra player ; L. Daskalakis played the bouzouki]. He sings the tragedies, and I do believe that the Iliad was sung like that, almost like a spoken song, accompanied by a lyre, so it probably is a long, deep cultural echo and memory of what actually happened 2,800 years ago.

P. H.: Your first encounter with Homer?

W. H.: That was in school. I hated school and, I must say, I had to learn ancient Greek and Latin. I was in a school with classical bias, nine years Latin, six years Ancient Greek, and at the end, the last three years a little bit of English. I didn’t like school, I was very much self-taught, I never trusted school, I never trusted instructors, but something remained there and only after school, when I was long done with it, I started to like it, and I started to read.

P. H.: However much you disliked school, you remember the first lines of the Iliad…

W. H.: Yes, and I could rattle down more, but I’ll just give you the sound of the Iliad, the beginning:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος οὐλομένην,

So, off the raft, “Sing me goddess, of the Peleus son Achilles, “οὐλομένην”, the one that brought doom.” My mentor, Herb Golder, professor of Classics at Boston University, pointed out that the word οὐλομένην, means that he brought doom, destruction and a ferocious sort of downfall not only to others, but to himself as well. It’s a very beautiful and very complex language, more complex in its Homeric type and in Classical Greek, which when you go to modern Greek much of it levels in…

P. H.: Of course it’s fascinating to hear that the first word of the Iliad is wrath.

W. H.: Yes, there’s something that touches me deeply. What I have understood is that digging into Greek antiquity opens my understanding of our deep cultural roots. I do have a sense of orientation because the lines, the perspective lines, go back to Greek antiquity where all the main things that still move us today were somehow articulated for the first time. Homer, and then later, fifth-, fourth-, third-century literature and philosophy, is all what still defines us.

P. H.: Werner, I didn’t know this story at all really before preparing for tonight of your trip to Greece at the age of fifteen or sixteen. I know of your wild walks, from Munich to Paris and around the border of Germany. But how how did you get to Greece, and why did you go to Greece at the age of fifteen?

W. H.: Well, it was mostly to look, to follow the footsteps of my grandfather and to see what he did there. I spent some time first on the Island of Crete and I traveled the entire length of the island. I had a donkey and I traveled the entire mountains that stretch out over 240 or so kilometers. There was one thing that was really striking for me, because it became the central image of my first feature film. I walked along fairly high up, something like, 1,800 meter high, and I came to a sort of cliff. I looked down into a valley and what I saw made me think I was insane or there was something not right. That is a central image in Signs of Life.

It is the moment where the leading character actually becomes insane, locks himself up in the fortress, declares war against friend and foe, shoots with firework rockets into the town and has to be overwhelmed by his own people.

P. H.: This moment of characters that become insane in your films… this is the first of many.

W. H.: No, the really stark mad are very few in my films, in fact, many of my characters make a lot of sense, (laughter) even the mad ones. It’s called the Valley of the Ten Thousand Windmills and really looked to me like a vast valley with flowers that had gone insane. It took me a long time to realize that these were not flowers, that there was not a deranged landscape, it was a real landscape and there were literally thousands and thousands of windmills. So there was that very deep sense of disconnect with the reality of the world, with the reality of a landscape, and I tried to understand it.

P. H.: So you would have been good in Ancient Greek times.

W. H.: Maybe, yes, and I keep thinking where would I have liked to be? I would have liked to be in two situations: one is Roman antiquity, let’s not speak much about it. The counterpart who actually defeated Hannibal, who is also a great hero of mine, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who by retreating and being cowardly and hesitant (today he’s still considered as a coward), he saved Rome. And of course, in Greek Antiquity, Leonidas, the Spartan defending Thermopylae in 400 AD against Xerxes. There’s an epigram which I like a lot, and it says, “Wayfarer, if you come to Sparta, please announce there that you have seen us laying slain as the law required us to do.” It’s a good, good line. This heroic deed was not just perishing, it was perishing for the sake of the unity of Greece, because unity, cultural unity, came through Homer, Iliad and Odyssey, and in terms of bravery and defending the homeland, Leonidas. This deed was always looked upon by all of Greece and formed some sort of sense of identity and sense of unity.

P. H.: And where would you have been there?

W. H.: Oh, anyone among the three hundred. I have been at the Thermopylae, which means hot springs (there are actually still hot springs there), and there was a gate, not very wide, and you probably could lock it with ten men standing abreast. But the Spartans were in fact brought down by treachery, because the Persian army went around on a mountain and came around in the back and attacked them from either side.

P. H.: You know, Werner, what is so amazing to me is how incredibly vivid history is for you. I mean, you’re talking about it as though you had lived it. Not quite, but nearly. Somehow there is a relation there, about how one revivifies history and about how one follows clues, and how one places oneself in landscape.

W. H.: It also has to do with what is going on today. When you read Thucydides, the first real great historiographer, the first really methodical thinking man who writes history in the depth of his intellect, in the depth of his understanding. Of course he was participant. In the Peloponnesian War he was one of the generals who was sent into exile because he lost a battle against Spartan attackers, so he had time enough and he wrote down diaries or made notes. This is a very intelligent understanding of history, of what was going on. There’s one very fascinating moment where Athens attacks the island of Milos. Milos was actually a daughter colony of Sparta, the great enemy, and it went on for years and years. Athens attacks the small island and wants to force the few inhabitants away from Sparta. There’s a dialogue that Thucydides reports, which in many of the passages reads almost exactly, -it’s kind of stunning!-, it reads almost exactly like the events now with the European Union and Greece in the kind of force and pressure upon Greece.

P. H.: To go from the present to the very distant past and to link it to Michael Ventris. Ventris for you is an incredible figure. Tell us a little bit who this man was and why he fascinates you so.

W. H.: Knossos, on the island of Crete, was excavated 120 years ago or so by Sir Arthur Evans. He came across a huge archive of clay tablets with strange inscriptions that dated back to the Bronze Age, between 1450 and 1250. Evans suggested (falsely) that it was not an Indo-European language and that it was probably related to Etruscan. When more was found on the Greek mainland, on the Peloponnese in Pylos and Mycene, all of a sudden there was a huge archive of clay tablets in thousands of fragments. The real question that fascinates me is to read the signs, to understand the signs. Ventris, a World War II pilot, was into deciphering encryptions along with Chadwick, a scholar of early ancient Greek dialects, succeeded in deciphering it with mathematical grids. Their work goes into the deepest understanding of structures of languages, into the deepest mathematical understanding of encryptions and deciphering with mathematical grids. It is completely stunning and a phenomenal intellectual achievement.

P. H.: If he was here today, what would you ask him?

W. H.: I would ask him some details, but unfortunately he died at the age of thirty-four in a car accident. So what interests me is unearthing the elements that have significance.

P. H.: Like an archaeologist….

W. H.: The comparison is a little bit limping but it has to do with sifting through things that have little significance. All of a sudden something sticks out that looks basically insignificant, for instance, people looking through a display window at a sausage. And yet there’s something deep about it.

P. H.: It could take you back to the life you had led during the war.

W. H.: We were hungry as children and I know what it means when there is not enough food. We, as boys, didn’t really mind, but for the mothers it was terrible. My mother was really desperate sometimes, and that’s how I remember her, moments when she was between anger and desperation, and she would say, “Boys, shut up, if I could cut it out of my ribs, I would cut it out of my ribs, but I can’t.” We were stunned and it still resonates in me.

There are things in footage of postwar Germany that have deep significance for me similar to what I feel when I look into ancient Greek literature.

It is the essential things that guide me until today, that guide our civilization until today, unbeknownst in many cases. I think it is a disastrous mistake that most of the universities are abandoning the departments for classics, because we are robbing ourselves of our roots, of our cultural identity and of a deeper understanding of who we are and where we are.

This is a very big mistake because the study of ancient literature, or the history of antiquity, have no practical value –as in training a medical doctor or a computer specialist– , but they abolish what is very essential that has to do with understanding ourselves.

I see around that young people do not read anymore, they read Twitter or Facebook, but they do not read coherent stories, they do not have a sense for conceptualizing, they have no sense of language anymore, they have no sense of the evolution of language.

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