Werner Herzog: As long as I breathe I will not let fascism happen again
75 years ago one of the darkest episodes in human history ended. How have humanity and our collective psychology changed since then? To consider this, and much more, we met the legendary, Oscar-nominated director, screenwriter and producer, Werner Herzog.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Werner Herzog, filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, actor, really great to have you on our show today. So many things that are going on. 75th anniversary of WWII, and you were born in the middle of WWII, you grew up in post-war Germany, you've seen major change in the course of your lifetime. Do you think humanity's collective psychology has undergone any kind of significant transformation since World War II?
Werner Herzog: Of course, it's 75 years now. We are advancing, but we live as an echo of our past and I still have a very strong echo, memories of the very end of the Second World War. Actually two.Most normally your memories start when you are five or six. But my very first memories start when I was two and a half years old. That was very shortly, only two weeks before, maybe three weeks before the end of the war, before the German capitulation. I remember that my mother wakes my older brother and me abruptly up in the middle of the night, and it was cold and still snow out there... She wraps us into blankets, puts both boys in her arms and rushes up on the hill behind the house. And she says, “Boys, I hate to wake you up, you have to see this - the city of Rosenheim is burning.” And the city of Rosenheim that was, we knew, about… It’s a big city and it's about 50-60 kilometres away. And she said, “The city of Rosenheim is burning,” and we looked at the exit of the valley, the entire scale... When you see a fire you see the flickering, but since it was so far away, and it was so big, the entire sky was pulsing, it was orange and red, and yellow, and it was slowly pulsing. The sky like this in complete silence. And I knew there was something big going on there, I was only two and a half years old. I knew this was big and I knew there was a danger out there, and the world was different than what we had had so far. I became curious, what is the world all about. And then another, shortly afterwards, when the Americans arrived. Germany shrank and shrank and shrank. In the east, Russia started to occupy and win the battles, and in the west — British, French and Americans. And the area in Bavaria where I grew up was one of the very last elements, it was not occupied and finally was overrun by Americans. My mother saw me and I remember that quite well, I met for the first time a black man. And we only knew it from fairy tales. They were the pitch-black moors, the Moorish. There was an African American, and he was very, very big, he was this type of Shaquille O'Neal, the basketball player, very big, very strong, very heavy. And he had a wonderful voice. And my mother saw me sitting with him next to the slope behind the house. And I was talking to him for hours. And she asked me then, “Who was it?.” And I said, “This was a wonderful man, you know, I met a black man and he's wonderful.” And he had the sweetest voice, a wonderful voice. I remember his voice, and I knew that the moors, the Africans, they were wonderful people. And it sank into me and until today when I see a black man I see some type of Shaquille O'Neal like that first black man that I ever met.
SS: So those are the personal echoes that stayed with you forever. And there are so many like you, little boys, who were born in the middle of it and even those who underwent the whole WWII. Do you think, not personally but as collective psychology, has it changed for people over the course of 75 years? Do you think the collective psychology has changed since WWII, and if you think that it has, then how?
WH: Well, it has. Unfortunately, I have to speak about myself again. I belong to a generation that grew up in ruins. So we only knew there was a disaster. The entire country, all the cities were bombed into debris and ashes. And everyone in my generation, all my peers, we knew there was something not right. And there will not be. And we took a look at what had happened. And it's obvious without debate, it was clear to us: fascism is something that is not going to happen as long as we are alive. And of course, it is alarming that we see that racism is raising its head again. You have antisemitism, fascism or some ultra right-wing movements on the rise, and we know this is dangerous, and we have to be particularly vigilant.
SS: You know, about two years ago in 2018, a German foundation has conducted a study that was aimed to find out Germans’ attitudes towards the past. And almost half of those taking part in it told that they don't think things like Holocaust can ever happen again. So obviously, when I talked to my Jewish friends about it, they're like, “well, we're not so sure because people need to be reminded of the atrocities that we went through all the time in order for that not to ever happen again.” What do you think? Do you think that the finding of the study that half of the people said, “Holocaust will not happen again,” is good enough indication that it actually won't? Or do we need to do something extra to always keep it in people's minds?
WH: Well, I am not a prophet. When you speak of “not ever,” but I can answer it in such a way: not as long as I am alive. I am the guarantee. As long as you see me, and as long as you hear me talking, and it's a very simple fact. If we have something like fascist takeover and the Holocaust coming up, I will take arms, I will defend democracy. Well, I will try to defend, and I will probably or maybe loose, but I will not be alive anymore when there's a Holocaust again. As long as there’s breath in me, it's not going to happen, because I will fight back actively. I will arm myself and I will fight back. And you will see me dead, and only then it may happen.
SS: That's a very straightforward and very strong reaction and a very honest answer, and I thank you for that. But I would love to ponder together with you on human nature. For instance, no matter how many atrocities were committed in the last war, collective violence of people against other people is something that doesn't seem to go away. I mean, no matter how advanced we are, technologically, we still see a lot of violence around us. Where do you think this fundamental nature of being brutal to others comes from? Is it survival instinct? Is it something else? Why is it in us no matter how evolved we are?
WH: I think, over centuries and centuries scientists, and philosophers, and religions tried to find an answer, yet we do not have a full answer. We only have evidence, we have evidence from the earliest time of human existence, of Homo Sapiens, I’m speaking of that, that there has been violence against each other. We have skeleton remains of a Cro-Magnon man that have an arrow head in their vertebrae. So there has been warfare. We have cave paintings, for example, cave engravings in the southern Sahara with war scenes of human conflict, armed conflict, battle among men. I wouldn't say that it's in the nature of us, but collectively, we haven't gotten rid of collective violence. Individual violence, yes, it's always crime, murder, this is something which unfortunately is happening. But the question is much bigger. Does it exist in the human nature, collective nature or not? Nobody has a full answer yet. But, of course, we have to be very cautious in particular, as we have instruments now, instruments that are extremely dangerous — atomic weapons, biological weapons. And the First World War was so catastrophic, because, all of a sudden, the war became industrialized. And armies met in the battlefield in the first days of the war, with the kind of chevaleresque attitude, “Oh, we are bold and brave, and we'll face each other face to face like medieval warriors with a sword and a shield.” And all of a sudden there were machine guns, there were bombs and there was massive artillery and air warfare, and the shock was extremely deep. And the shock of the Holocaust, by the way, is so deep number one because it is unprecedented. There's no precedent in world history, nor is there any words to describe it. We have this term Holocaust, but it's not a real description of it. What really made it so shocking and so unique was that mass murder, genocide was industrialized. It was industrialized mass murder of 6 million Jewish people.
SS: When we speak about unspeakable atrocities, like the Holocaust, what is it that triggers and brainwashes a human mind to a point that one is doing all of those appalling things and is convinced of doing the right thing?
WH: It's a very deep question. And part of it, I believe, is a certain collective narrative that today, for example, or during the Nazi time, not that important, what the facts were, but who owns the narrative, who owns the demonization of, let's say, the Jewish people, the French, the Russians, you just name it. And you see it very, very clearly today. It is not so much what is factually happening, it’s who owns the narrative. And we have to be very, very careful and watchful about looking at the media. What are the media doing? Is there some sort of almost collective brainwashing going on or not? So that's where we kick in, where we have to be alarmed, and where we have to be quite vigilant and we should think on our own.
SS: You know, one of my favourite German philosophers, Hannah Arendt says that the worst crimes against humanity are committed by banal and mediocre people who just got caught up in the whirlwinds of history and did what they thought was needed without really asking too many questions. Do circumstances make villains out of normal people? Or are villains born?
WH: I think it's a great complexity of factors. But of course, Hannah Arendt has pointed out, I think, is the first one to draw attention tothat “ banality of evil.'' And this is a very, very good observation. Because very often it starts with the banality and very shallow thinking and very shallow existences, and if existences like that are swept into power all of a sudden you have a very dangerous concoction.
SS: When I think back to our grandfathers, they, you know, marched off to the war in 1939, it was nothing extraordinary to them. I mean, for centuries before that fighting a big war in the traditional way was like a normal thing that you were just supposed to do from time to time. Now, when I mention 75 years of relative peace, do you think war as our grandfathers knew it doesn't exist as a viable option in our European psyche anymore? Or has it just transformed itself into something else?
WH: Well, it doesn't exist like for the grandfathers. They were surprised by the mechanization in the First World War, which was the biggest of all shocks, I believe, but today, the scenario has changed in particular, because of nuclear weapons and very rapid delivery systems. I find it very dangerous that short- and medium-range weapons, delivery systems are back and coming back. I find it very dangerous and I also find that Russia in a way culturally, it belongs to Europe. And I didn't find it completely odd that for a short moment, there were considerations even to include Russia into NATO. Of course, it has very complicated repercussions. Would NATO defend Russia, let's say, if there's a conflict in the Far East, in the Pacific with China and so on? So it's too complex, but the idea is not wrong that Russia belongs to (when I say “us” I mean Europe), culturally belongs to us, the poetry belongs to us.
SS: I heard this idea that war is the most effective tool for uncovering who we really are, stripping our only true nature and you've done several documentaries about war. You've shot feature films about it. What are the main discoveries about human nature that you've made while shooting these films?
WH: I have to look back at one film, “Ballad of the Little Soldier.” a film that I shot in Nicaragua with native misquito, Indian native insurgents. And it was mostly about child soldiers, boys of 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. And when you look at war being fought by children. They can fight a war, because they can operate a submachine gun easily, and they can use tools of warfare, they don't have to be grown up and strong and heavily built. So the tragedy of seeing wars fought by children is particularly painful. And in this case in Nicaragua, it was not propaganda that they brought them in, but atrocities that their families had suffered. The family wiped out, the mother being killed in front of an eight-year-old boy, and on the next day, the boy joins the insurgent army. Personal tragedies. You have the tragedy on an individual basis. And I think when you are looking at war, at what draws human beings into war, it is, of course, propaganda and personal experiences. When you study wars with children involved, in Africa you'll see it quite often.
SS: Would you agree that when something like war strikes, it brings out the worst and the best in people? And what I mean is that like, for every time there is a betrayal and a murder for the sake of survival, there's a tale of someone saving someone, a soldier jumping on a grenade, a family risking everything to shelter a fugitive, so many Germans who risked their lives to actually hide Jewish people in their homes... You know what I mean? These aren't the things that you would actually do as you go on in your everyday life. I'm just thinking that when something this big strikes, everything that's in you, good or bad, comes out, would you say that it's a correct observation? And I'll tell you why I'm saying this. Because I want to take this to whatever is going on right now - the whole pandemic and the COVID-19 and talk about how we're reacting to that because I believe COVID-19 pandemic is like a World War Three. We're fighting, all of us, the whole world together, an invisible enemy. Do you feel like this pandemic has also transformed people? Because I see some people just like during the wars that my grandfathers fought, being ignorant, being inconsiderate, and others are risking their lives to save other lives. And these aren’t things that I would see on an ordinary day...
WH: Yeah, it's good to move to the pandemic because, of course, for our generations it's new. We haven't had it since 1917-1919. And we haven't had the plague years, like in the Middle Ages and in antiquity. But yes, it will bring changes in collective behaviour. At the moment we have one key option and that is discipline. We have to separate and isolate ourselves because we have to starve the virus. It cannot jump to anyone anymore. We have to starve it out. But of course, beyond that discipline, we have to hope for the vaccine and then things will change, the entire picture will change from that on. But it brings good things out, I can feel it in our neighbourhood, how we are helping each other and how we are collectively understanding. What is hard to understand is the spread. The spread is not in our everyday experience of numbers. When you walk along a street, you meet one person, then the next, then number three, number four and so on. But the spread of the virus is in different mathematics, it's not linear. You meet 16 people, but the next one is not number 17. But all of a sudden number 32. 32 are coming at you. And the next one is not a 33rd person, but 64 people are coming at you while you're spreading it to 64, and then it's 128. And then all of a sudden within a few kilometres, you're up to a million. And it's not in our experience of experiences in numbers, and that has to sink in. Because of that at the moment there has to be discipline.
SS: Just to wrap this conversation up, you as a big visionary, as a big artist with a vision, you make films, you are driven by images, would you, looking back at this pandemic, say it is something that will transform the humanity? How would you depict it in a film, if you were to make a film about it?
WH: I think I shouldn't make a film about it, but whatever, let's imagine. I do believe that it shows certain things that are collectively doable. We can change our some very fundamental behaviours. It's not a big jump, but in increments, we can change our behaviour. And you actually see heroic behaviour. I've seen on television people who were the first ones who come part of a study and get intentionally infected by the virus in order to test some sort of medication against it. And those are heroic people who step up out of society, very average people, they step up and they say, “It has to be done, and I will be volunteer, and please give me the virus and test your vaccine.” And I find this the most civil, deepest, civil and heroic. It's not just a gesture because these people may die. And heroes are only those who have died.
SS: Werner, thank you so much for this interview, for this wonderful insight. I really do hope we get to do this again, maybe on a different topic, but this has been such a breath of fresh air talking to right before the 75th anniversary of the victory.
WH: One thing about Russia since we are speaking here. Russia has lost more than 25 million soldiers and civilians. And they are the only real heroes. Those who sacrificed their life, they are the heroes. And you have over 25 million heroes to commemorate. I regret that it was Germany that brought all this catastrophe on Russian people. But today, other things are possible. I'm happily married to a Russian.
SS: And may you remain happily married to a beautiful Russian woman for many, many years to come. Thank you so much. Happy Victory Day and stay safe!
WH: Thank you.
SS: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.