14 Insane Stories From The Strange Life of Werner Herzog

Despite the thousands of tales about the lengths to which filmmakers go over the course of a production, there's no doubt Werner Herzog is among the most insane movie directors in the history of cinema. Here you shall find a few of the most buckwild Herzog tales ever told.

Herzog considers filmmaking a contact sport. He demands his crew be in tip-top shape and willing to risk their lives. He doesn’t like to work in a studio, he wants the perils of a dangerous environment to invoke spontaneity. He lives for the challenge of the elements, feeling a controlled environment kills an actor’s performance. The unhinged German auteur makes films he believes are meaningful, ones that criticize humanity and force the audience to question everything.

Many of Herzog's films created so much behind-the-scenes movie drama they deserved their own making-of documentary. From plotting to kill one of his actors, to filming a volcano about to erupt, to hypnotizing his entire cast; wildman Werner Herzog will stop at nothing to finish a film.

There are so many legendary, confirmed tales about the prolific German director. Read about all the crazy Werner Herzog stories below, then let us know your favorites in the comments section.

  • His Plot To Murder Friend And Collaborator Klaus Kinski Was Thwarted By A Dog

    His Plot To Murder Friend And Collaborator Klaus Kinski Was Thwarted By A Dog
    Video: YouTube

    Herzog and legendary German actor Klaus Kinski (who appeared in more than 200 films) made five movies together, despite an extremely contentious relationship. Herzog admitted in his documentary My Good Fiend (1999) that he planned to set fire to Kinki's house because he had grown so enraged by the actor's abusive, diva-like onset antics. His plan was thwarted, however, when Kinksi's dog attacked him.

    Herzog tried to explain their tumultuous relationship during an interview after the premiere of his Fiend at the Cannes Film Festival. "We had a great love, a great bond, but both of us planned to murder each other. Klaus was one of the greatest actors of the century, but he was also a monster and a great pestilence. Every single day I had to think of new ways of domesticating the beast."

    It seems Herzog wasn't the only one who had issues with Klaus:

    "My crew would almost mutiny when they heard that Klaus was on board. They would say, 'How could you do this do us? We can't take this man a minute longer'. I don't like the term wild man, but Dennis Hopper was in the kindergarten compared with Klaus. I remember scenes where Klaus was attacked, and how the other actors used to take such pleasure in punching and kicking him. He was often quite badly hurt.'"

  • He Threatened To Shoot Kinski Then Himself If The Actor Walked Away From Aguirre

    He Threatened To Shoot Kinski Then Himself If The Actor Walked Away From Aguirre
    Video: YouTube

    Here's another Herzog/Kinski battle royale from My Best Fiend. During the incredibly difficult production of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, about an insane Spanish soldier (Kinki) in search of gold, Herzog was not getting the performance he wanted out of Kinski. The director thought the best way to find gold in Kinski's art was to rile the performer up before shooting a scene.

    Herzog's agitation pushed Kinksi over the edge and, in a state of tremendous agitation over noises crew members and extras were making in a nearby hut, the actor grabbed a gun and fired three bullets, one of which blew off the top joint of an extra's finger. He then declared he was done with the movie. Herzog picked up a gun (maybe the same one, maybe another, why are there so many guns on this set?) and told the out-of-control actor if he left he would shoot him and himself. The ultimatum worked; the pair went on to complete the masterpiece, which Roger Ebert called, "one of the great haunting visions of the cinema."

    The story is obviously legendary. But would Herzog have shot Kinksi if the actor walked away from the production? The German director confirmed just how serious the threat was in the DVD commentary section of the film. "I would have shot him, there was no doubt and the bastard understood it was not a joke. I just out-gutted him and was more determined than he was. After that he behaved for like ten days."

  • His Crew Pulled A 360-Ton Boat Over A Mountain On A Shoot Where Someone Lost A Foot

    His Crew Pulled A 360-Ton Boat Over A Mountain On A Shoot Where Someone Lost A Foot
    Video: YouTube

    There really is no level of sacrifice Herzog isn't willing to make for his art, even if it means risking his life and those of his crew. In Fitzcarraldo (1982), shot on location in South American jungles, a madman (Klaus Kinski, unsurprisingly) completely obsessed with opera, decides to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle. The only way he can succeed is by dragging a large boat over a mountain so he can cross a river. The plot is more complicated than that, there's rubber plantations and other colonial aspects at play, but suffice it to say, for opera he must do the ship. 

    There are a number of ways Herzog could have filmed the scene of Fitzcarraldo and a thousand natives dragging the boat over the mountain. He could have used special effects, or filmed in a studio lot. But this is Herzog, and he wanted the film to appear as authentic as possible, so if that meant actually dragging a real 360-ton boat up a steep slope in the jungle, then that's what he would do. Special effects be damned! 

    Like many of Herzog's films, the making of Fitzcarraldo (which spent three years in pre-production) was so interesting it warranted its own documentary, Burden of Dreams (1982). In the doc, viewers learn all about just how difficult and scarring the experience was for the film's cast and crew. One crew member lopped off his own foot with a chainsaw after being bitten by a deadly snake. There's also a story about how there was a 70% chance the cables holding the boat would snap while it was getting pulled up the mountain. Even though dozens of lives were at stake, Herzog went along with the plan anyway.

  • He Got Shot During An Interview And Quipped "It Is Not a Significant Bullet"

    He Got Shot During An Interview And Quipped "It Is Not a Significant Bullet"
    Video: YouTube

    During an interview with British film critic Mark Kermode, promoting his film Grizzly Man on top of a scenic overlook in Los Angeles, Herzog was shot by an air rifle bullet. Instead of reacting like a normal person with total shock and fear, Herzog barely reacted at all, calmly asking, "what was that?"

    Of course, most would cringe and maybe even go to the hospital in such a situation. But this is Herzog, who refused to stop the interview. While showing off the fresh wound on this stomach, Herzog belittled the air rifle stating, "it is not a significant bullet." The director even requested the crew doing the interview not bother to chase the shooter.

  • He Hypnotizes Chickens And Fears "The Enormity Of Their Flat Brains"

    He Hypnotizes Chickens And Fears "The Enormity Of Their Flat Brains"
    Video: YouTube

    Werner Herzog doesn't mind telling you exactly how he feels about chickens. He finds "their stupidity just overwhelming." But that doesn't mean he won't hypnotize them. "By the way, it's very easy to hypnotize a chicken. They're very prone to hypnosis," he says. 

    During a Reddit AMA with fellow filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer and Errol Morris, who Herzog collaborated with on the The Act of Killing (2012), the director explained his process of hypnotizing fowl. "Calm the chicken down. Put its beak on the floor, and then, with determination, draw a line of chalk away from it. Release the chicken, and you will see it will be hypnotized."

  • He's Way Into WrestleMania, Calling It "Evil Uninterrupted By Commercials"

    He's Way Into WrestleMania, Calling It "Evil Uninterrupted By Commercials"
    Video: YouTube

    It's a mistake to think true artists use their free time to nothing but arty stuff.

    We all know the WWE is nothing more than staged fighting and scripted feuds between hulky, athletic actors in a roped cage. And perhaps this is why Herzog is fascinated by professional wrestling. He compared WrestleMania to a Greek drama during a 2002 interview with The Austin Chronicle:

    "It's fascinating because something very crude, something very raw is emerging. A very raw, primitive form of new drama is being born, as primitive and crude as it must have been in the earlier Greek times before Sophocles and before Euripides, when something like this emerged for the public eye. I do believe that what is fascinating about WrestleMania is the stories around it: the dramas between the owner of the whole show and his son, who are feuding, and his wife in the wheelchair who is blind, and he is then showing up in the ring with four girls who have huge, fake boobs, and he is fondling them.

    This is almost sort of an ancient Greek drama -- evil uninterrupted by commercials. So, what does it say? It says that this sort of thing is more important that the fight itself (which of course is all staged and all manipulated). And that's very interesting to me because apparently the emergence of a new drama has been understood by these people who invented WrestleMania."