nobody movie_Werner Herzog has never liked introspection

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When I first corresponded with the filmmaker Werner Herzogin January 2021, he told me that the lockdown reminded him of Boccaccio decameron. As he put it, “Go into isolation in the country and let the storytelling begin.” During the quarantine, he completed two films: a documentary titled The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft two French volcanologists; and another, “Theater of Thought,” on neurotechnology and artificial intelligence. Both are imminent.

He has also written two books. The first of these “The Twilight World“ appears in June in English, translated from German by Michael Hofmann. Part adventure story, part memoir, and part unclassifiable lyric, The Twilight World tells the story of Hiroo Onoda, a real-life Japanese soldier who had occupied his post on Lubang Island in the Philippines for three decades after World War II. after convincing himself that this was not the case. During his Thirty Years’ War – which Onoda described in his own memoirs: “No surrender– he survived more than a hundred ambushes while protecting himself from the ravages of the jungle. (As Daniel Zalewski in a Profile of Duke, from 2006, the “Canonical Ducal Narrative . . . portrays a man immersed in a situation of almost surreal extremity.”) Onoda was also bombarded with an onslaught of well-meaning attempts to lure him from his post. But his deception persisted. In The Twilight World, Herzog writes, “Onoda’s war comes from the union of an imaginary nothingness and a dream.”

I met Herzog personally in April at an apartment he maintains in Manhattan. He and his wife, photographer Lena Herzog, soon made their way to Venice, where they would show Last Whispers, an immersive exhibition about the disappearance of languages. Her husband and I sat across from each other at a glass-topped coffee table that had books on Bruegel and Goya on it. For four hours we discussed Onoda’s dream, Herzog’s literary mumbo-jumbo and the genius of Buster Keaton. Heavy crates of virtual reality equipment lined a nearby wall. When the interview was over, Lena allowed me to be the guinea pig for the VR version of her exhibit. I sat in the living room and traveled into space and through dark forests. When I returned to the reality of the apartment, Herzog was sitting next to me on the couch, quietly working on a letter.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your experiences with the lockdown?

There were a few months when I hardly left my home in Los Angeles. I couldn’t go out and make films with a crew and actors, so I wrote The Twilight World. I had the story inside me for twenty years. Sometimes you have something that’s completely ready: you don’t have to think, you don’t have to create a plot – it’s there immediately.

When this book was finished, I immediately wrote the next book, which is three times as long. It will appear in German in a few months and will then be translated into English by Michael Hofmann. It’s kind of a memoir, but not in the autobiographical sense. Only part of it is about my life. It’s really about the origins of ideas. For example, when I was seventeen, I stumbled across a valley full of ten thousand windmills on the island of Crete. I had hired a donkey and was traveling in the inland mountains. When I saw this valley of windmills, I thought: This can’t be – either I’m wrong or I’m completely crazy. I knew my grandfather when he was completely insane, but he was an older man and I thought it was too soon. That shouldn’t be happening now.

I pulled myself together and went down into the valley and there were indeed windmills. They were there to pump water to irrigate this entire valley. There wasn’t a single building, just ten thousand windmills – it was completely insane. The book is about how an image like this lingers and then suddenly connects to a story and holds an entire feature film together – in this case Signs of Life.

You met Hiroo Onoda, the main character of The Twilight World, in the late 1990s.

I was in Japan to direct Shigeaki Saegusa’s opera Chushingura, based on the famous story of Forty-Seven Followers ronin whose master is wrong and must oblige seppuku, ritual suicide. That ronin avenge him, knowing that they must also commit a ritual suicide for their crime. It is the most Japanese of all Japanese stories – every schoolchild knows it. While in Japan I received word that the Emperor’s office had put out feelers to see if I would like to meet the Emperor in a private audience, but I felt that I was only getting into formulas and polite, canned dialogue could speak, so I declined. To this day I wish the ground had opened up into an abyss and swallowed me. There are benevolent silences, but there are also shocked silences and hostile silences, and there was a long silence among those I had worked with. Someone then asked who else I would like to meet in Japan and I suddenly said “Onoda”.

For many years he had refused to take part in a film about his life. But he said, “If there’s anyone who should do it, it should be you, Herr Herzog.” I was very moved by that, and for a while I thought his story could be made into a film. But something stopped me. I knew the story had to do with elements that are extraneous to films – like how a belief system emerges from observing minute details that all come together to form a coherent worldview with an almost religious intensity. For example, leaflets were thrown from small airplanes to tell Onoda that the war was over and he should surrender. He would study these leaflets like papyrus fragments of the Bible and discover that they contained a small error in one of the Japanese characters, or that they called his battalion by its old name when his battalion was renamed near the end of the war. To him, this was proof that the leaflets were the work of the enemy.

But I felt that the tragedy of settling into a fictional life might not have been such a tragedy at all. I have a suspicion that he lived a full life. And of course what fascinates me is not just how Onoda fits into a fictional life, but how basically all of us are doing within our cultural norms. In his story, the deeper structure of what makes a human being becomes more visible.

Did Onoda prefer not to know the war was over?

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