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Interview: Director Werner Herzog on the death of Roger Ebert

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Film critic Roger Ebert with director Werner Herzog in June of 2005.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Film critic Roger Ebert with director Werner Herzog in June of 2005.

Herzog — the director behind films like Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Grizzly Man — was also close friends with the film critic.

Film critic Roger Ebert has died. He was 70 years old. More than just a critic and TV personality—Ebert was a phenomenal writer, a commentator on life, politics, religion, even food. 

Ebert was also close friends with Werner Herzog, the director behind films like Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre and Grizzly Man. Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson reached Herzog by phone.

Interview Highlights:

Ferguson: We're talking on Thursday, I just found out the news that he passed away. When did you learn that Roger Ebert had died?

Herzog: "Just a few hours ago. I'm in the middle of mixing some new films and I got a call right into the mixing control room."

Ferguson: How did you take the news?
Herzog: "How can you take news like this? You can't, really. Of course, we have to. And we have to accept that Roger Ebert is not with us anymore. But I immediately had the feeling there was something much bigger going on and that is he was the last mammoth alive. The last one who created excitement about movies, and intelligent discourse about movies. Which has faded away in the last two decades, almost completely. His passing signifies much much more than one wonderful man who gave us excitement about movies."

Ferguson: When I read his reviews I didn't feel like I was being talked down to. I didn't feel like I was reading something academic. I was reading something that was literary.
Herzog: "Yeah, excitement. Our love and our excitement for movies. And of course, I've been soldiering on, and he called me the soldier of the good cinema. And I said 'Roger, no, no, no, it's actually you. And you are the wounded soldier. You are the one who is afflicted by disease, and you are holding out your post. And you are talking to us, although you cannot speak anymore. And you keep the excitement alive.' So, that's what I shared with him particular."

Ferguson: Is that why you dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to him?
Herzog: "Yes. In a way, yes. To the wounded soldier, who held the position that was abandoned by almost everyone else."

Ferguson: Did you really force Roger to watch the Anna Nicole Smith Show?
Herzog: "Of course, no. That's too much to say but I said to him 'Roger, you have to know what kind of world we live in.' And I said to him, 'Roger, the poet must not avert his eyes. One of the things you have to watch is Anna Nicole Smith.' Because there was something big about her. A shift in our understanding of beauty, of female beauty. These enhancements. And this is a major shift, whether we find it ugly or not doesn't really matter."

Ferguson: And he took your advice?
Herzog: "He did, yes."

Ferguson: I think a lot of people, at least in the States, first got into your films through some of his reviews. Did you find that to be the case? Do you think that his reviews helped?
Herzog: "Certainly, yes. A good case would be an early film of mine: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It took quite a while until it found a wider audience. And it was very significant that Roger took Aguirre, the Wrath of God in his list of the ten best of all times. That somehow made people stop in their tracks and they said 'we got to see what this one is all about!' But of course, when I dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to him, he immediately said 'Well, I cannot review the film anymore. It would be a conflict of interest.' I said to him 'Roger, it doesn't matter at all. Review it anyway, and bring it down! Write a bad review, no matter what you like to do. There's never a conflict of interest.'"

Ferguson: Did knowing Roger inform your filmmaking in any way?
Herzog: "It didn't inform my filmmaking, per se, but it widened my scope to look into corners that I hadn't taken seriously yet. And it's the same reason, I guess, that I tried to tell him to watch the Anna Nicole Smith show. And, by the way, also Wrestlemania. And he asked about Wrestlemania, and I said I do believe there's a crude form of new drama emerging that we do not understand yet. And it's not the fights that are so important. What is more important is the show around it. The owner of the franchise stepping into the ring with four blondes with breast implants. And his wife is being wheeled in a wheelchair, paralyzed and blind. And he makes fun of his wife! And the son of the owner of the franchise interfering and fighting his father in the ring. And we had an understanding over this."

Ferguson: I don't have anything else to ask you unless there's anything you'd like to add, or something you think I forgot to ask about?
Herzog: "No, but, you see, where are we going now? It's what I do not know. And knowing, having known Roger Ebert has not changed the course of my life. But it has made it better."

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