Alan Greenberg Pays Tribute to Werner Herzog

During the 1970s, the Italian climber Reinhold Messner revolutionized mountaineering. He and a small group of climbing compatriots spurned the siege-like expedition approach that had conquered the world's highest peaks in the 1950s; instead, they adapted the fast-and-light methods of climbing suited for the relatively accessible Alps to the higher, more remote and more hostile mountain ranges of Central Asia. Messner and his partners preferred to climb the most dangerous mountains without supplemental oxygen, fixed ropes, or advance camps. Above all, style was essential—how they climbed was just as important as what they accomplished. (And Messner accomplished significant feats: He was the first man to climb all 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters.) Their risky technique—reducing high-mountain climbing to a fundamental face-off between man and nature—became, over the course of the decade, a matter of ethics. Any kind of aid, they argued, was cheating.

In 1984, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog directed a short documentary on Messner. The two seem like an ideal match of the kind of New Age macho quasi-spirituality that equates aesthetics and endurance with ethics. For Herzog, how he makes a movie is part of its essence, its basic, unchangeable nature; his style of filmmaking—quick, low-budget, and often under extreme conditions—has an unbending moral edge that can't be divorced from the his artistic vision.

As he says in Every Night the Trees Disappear, Alan Greenberg's book about Herzog and the production of his 1976 film Heart of Glass, "There is nothing more important for me, I think, than fulfilling a task with physical work, with the body, especially to create my films. And I know this is true: a man who is a coward with his body is a coward with his mind as well." When Greenberg asks him how his work would change with a big studio budget, Herzog hold up his hands. "These are what you need to make a beautiful film," he says.

Greenberg's book was originally published in 1976. This new, revised version, published by Chicago Review Press, collects Greenberg's fragmentary, dream-like memories from the period—starting with his first meeting with Herzog at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975 and concluding with the final shoot for the film, in Ireland—plus Herzog's screenplay and Greenberg's photos from the production.

Heart of Glass is one of Herzog's oddest films. Set in the early industrial past, it presents a village on the edge of despair and economic ruin—the master glassblower has died without passing on the secret of his ruby glass, which is the town's only commercial asset. The owner of the glass factory slowly unravels, and an outcast herdsman describes his ominous visions for the future. The cast members (with the exception of Josef Bierbichler, as Hias, the prophetic herdsman) were hypnotized by Herzog before each scene was filmed, giving the movie an eerie, hallucinatory tempo and, according to Herzog, intense emotional honesty.

"Under hypnosis, things become more obvious about a person—not due to my power, but to the power of the person," Herzog says in the book. "He goes much deeper into his conditioning. As an actor, he doesn't use his mask."

Greenberg, a filmmaker himself, adopts Herzog's tone—cryptic, deadpan, pseudo-philosophical, and self-consciously poetic—for his own voice in Every Night the Trees Disappear. His purpose isn't journalistic; there's no insight into the technical process of making a movie. In fact, there's little real insight at all. Herzog delivers baffling philosophical puzzles ("So picture in your mind the clear image of a snake swallowing itself up from the rear, forming a diminishing circle. What then happens to the snake? What happens when the jaws approach and begin to swallow the neck—what happens?") or drives off on a search for a burning cow; cast members get hypnotized; the crew gets drunk. Everybody says weird shit, and Greenberg writes it down.

And yet, for all its phony intellectualism (or maybe because of it), the book captures something of Herzog's artistic character in general and Heart of Glass in particular. Herzog is full of ideas as a director, but those ideas aren't necessarily what make him a great artist. Much of the time, he comes across as a pretentious crackpot. But he is also responsible for some of the most profound images of 1970s cinema, like the long opening shot of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or the famous shot of wind rippling through a wheat field in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. His strength as a filmmaker is visual and visceral; sometimes his vision corresponds to his iconoclastic ideas and sometimes it succeeds in spite of them. Herzog is a great director, but I'm not sure he knows why, and Greenberg doesn't seem interested in figuring it out. His book offers a glimpse into Herzog's personality, but it is silent on his greatness.