Werner Herzog: ‘I am not an eccentric’

Legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog spoke with The Local’s Vera von Kreutzbruck as he began his role this week as jury President for the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.

Werner Herzog: 'I am not an eccentric'
Photo: DPA

A rebel against the conservative filmmaking of the fifties, Herzog was part of the New German Cinema movement, and first gained widespread acclaim for his epic film “Fitzcarraldo” (1982).

Whether consciously or not, the director has constructed a myth around himself thanks to a raft of unusual cinematographic endeavours. Among many tales originating from his sets, the most legendary occurred while shooting “Fitzcarraldo,” when fights between him and the notoriously temperamental star Klaus Kinski became so unbearable that one of the indigenous men working as an extra offered to kill the actor.

Now with more than 50 films to his name, from popular features to documentaries, Herzog spoke with The Local ahead of recognising a new generation of talented filmmakers at the Berlinale awards next week.

You have a reputation of being a lone wolf, yet you are the jury president of the 60th Berlinale. How did that happen?

The lone wolf is a bit of stylization by the media. I had to be kind of persuaded to do it. I thought it was right to return to this festival with a real duty, as a working member of the festival. I was told that last year the films were extremely good. A young woman from Peru (Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow”) won the Golden Bear. I was in Peru not long ago and it has translated into a certain pride for the entire nation. In this case, I believe it does make sense to give awards to films. However, the other side of the coin is that I’ve always said films do not really need awards. Awards are much more for the agricultural fair where the prize goes for the cow with the best milk.

Why did you decide to set up the Rogue Film School?

During the last 25 years there have been an increasing number of people who see me as a point of orientation. I felt I had to give an organized response. I have something I can pass on. Its not technical things that you can learn at a local film school, its a different spirit – a rogue, guerilla style spirit.

Why are people so attracted to your movies?

I have managed against all odds to always make films I really wanted to make. And all this happened outside of the established film industry. Yet my films are all hidden mainstream movies. For example, my film “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” which was made forty years ago, has become a mainstream movie. I am not an eccentric, I occupy the centre and all the rest is bizarre. I’m clinically sane, so to speak.

You have repeatedly said that your work seeks an ‘ecstatic truth.’ Could you define this?

I have always had a conflict with the so-called cinéma verité. We have to look beyond realism. We have to dig into a deeper stratum of truth, which is somehow deeply inherent in cinema but very hard to ever find. I’m looking for moments that are all of a sudden illuminating.

Do you seek for this kind of truth when you make documentaries?

I think that through imagination, stylization, invention we become much more truthful. I have done unusual things to do so. For example, in my film “Lessons of Darkness” I show Kuwait when the Iraqi army set the entire country on fire. It looked not just like a political crime, but a crime against creation itself. In the entire film there is not one single moment where you can recognize our planet. I declared this to be a science fiction movie, which brought much controversy. In Berlin, people howled at me in disgust and spat at me, but I wouldn’t like to miss such beautiful moments of controversy.

You often portray the struggle between man and nature. What attracts you to this relationship?

It’s not always a struggle. In a way it’s a distant echo of how I grew up in the mountains without the presence of technical civilization. I did not see movies until I was 11. I made my first phone call when I was 17. And I still do not have a phone. I function better in the Amazonian jungle, in Antarctica or the Sahara desert. I could work in a studio but I would never really feel at home.

What do you cherish most about your relationship with the late Klaus Kinski?

It’s a difficult question because it was such a complex relationship. But I would say discipline. His discipline combined with my discipline. Otherwise, it was just the struggle to domesticate the wild beast, which was a certain joy. It also created good results.

You said recently that your book “The Conquest of the Useless,” a journal of the two years you spent making “Fitzcarraldo” would survive your films. Why?

In my opinion there is more substance in my prose than in all my movies together. It is a more direct way to express oneself. In cinema you always have other aspects in between like finance, organization, actors or technical apparatus.

Does it matter if people are still reading it in 100 years?

I couldn’t care less about posterity because I won’t be around anyway. I could say it more drastically but I won’t. Maybe after a few beers in a bar I would tell you what I mean.

This interview was conducted with a group of journalists.

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.