My guest today, Werner Herzog, is a trailblazing filmmaker. He’s also an actor, an author and a poet. But more than anything, he’s a character. He’s a free thinker and he’s a lifelong rule breaker.
HERZOG: So I said, “Two things I really will teach you. Number one: lock picking. And number two: forging of documents.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
The people portrayed in Werner Herzog movies often walk a tightrope between genius and madness. Reading his recent memoir, entitled Every Man for Himself and God Against All, one can’t help but think that Werner Herzog himself isn’t so different.
* * *
LEVITT: So Werner, you’ve had a truly remarkable life and you tell your story in a new memoir entitled Every Man for Himself and God Against All. And what you’ve done is all the more amazing because you were born into extremely difficult circumstances — born in Germany during World War II, raised in a tiny remote village in Bavaria by a single mom. I think it’s almost impossible for people living in today’s world to imagine what your childhood was like. Could you paint a picture?
HERZOG: Well, actually I was born in Munich, but I was only two weeks old when there was carpet bombardment on Munich and everything around destroyed. And my mother finds me in my cradle with a thick layer of glass shards and debris and bricks upon me. So she got frightened and grabbed my older brother and me and fled into the mountains, so we were some sort of refugees or displaced people. And, of course, not easy to grow up because it was deep poverty, nothing was there. We had, for example, no running water. You had to go to the well with a bucket. The electricity didn’t function most of the time. There was no real heating system. Toilet was an outhouse, but snow drifts would come in. I made my first phone call when I was 17, which is unbelievable for many. And of course, we were hungry. Two and a half years, three years, there was real, real hunger. But, the childhood was wonderful. We had to invent our own games, our own toys. We were independent. It was a most joyful, wonderful childhood.
LEVITT: You write about how there was one loaf of bread that your family would receive per week and your mother would carefully demarcate it with seven marks for the seven days.
HERZOG: Yes, and it was just enough, one slice of bread for my mother and for my brother and me. And I describe my most intense moment with my mother. My older brother and I were hanging on her skirts and wailing, we were hungry, and she turns around abruptly, completely composed, completely quiet, but with a face full of despair and anger and control, and she says, “Boys, if I could cut it out of my ribs, I would cut it out of my ribs, but I can’t, so you shut up,” and we shut up. But those are fleeting moments where we were aware that we were lacking something. Otherwise, we never had the feeling of poverty, although it was real poverty.
LEVITT: You describe your mother a bit. She had a Ph.D. in biology, which had to be incredibly rare back in those days. She’s a cosmopolitan woman from Munich, but because of the war, she’s with you in this remote village by the Austrian border. She seems to have had a sort of doggedness that I’ve seen in older Germans, but I’ve rarely encountered in Americans. Would you agree?
HERZOG: I do, yes. Men were all dead or in captivity. And women picked up the bricks out of the debris and cleaned them and started life again and raised the children. And my mother was very determined and a lioness as a mother. And very principled. We had a motorcycle when we were 18 or 19, and my mother found it very dangerous. She said, “Boys, I do not want to bury one of you one day at the cemetery. I just don’t want to see that,” because we had tiny accidents on a weekly basis. And she was a heavy smoker all her life, and she sits us down and smokes, takes only two puffs, and stubs it out. And she says, “It would be wise to give up the motorcycle, just sell it. It’s not healthy. It’s not gonna do good to you. And by the way, this was my last cigarette.” And she never smoked again.
LEVITT: But did you get rid of the motorcycle or no?
HERZOG: Within a week, because if your mother does something of that magnitude and that principle, she doesn’t have to talk us into anything. You learn by seeing her and how she handles it.
LEVITT: Was she bitter? I can only imagine my own anger at the universe if I had suffered her fate.
HERZOG: No, no, she raised three boys and, of course, very, very hard for her. We can only guess nowadays how difficult it was — having a Ph.D., but she worked as a housemaid. But she never had any complaint. Never, ever, ever. And I really do not like the culture of complaint that you see very often in our societies.
LEVITT: Yeah, my wife is German. And her grandmother, who just passed away after living more than a hundred years —
HERZOG: Oh my goodness. Okay.
LEVITT: I had the chance to talk with her about the U.S. occupation after World War II. And it’s funny, growing up American, I always had this view that American soldiers were wonderful and honorable and they weren’t like other soldiers. But my God, when you hear the stories from the Germans who lived with and suffered with the American soldiers, it’s really sobering to realize that American soldiers are just like anybody else. The horrors that they were subjecting the Germans to.
HERZOG: No, no, please stop it right here. Don’t put your own country down. I had wonderful experiences. And Americans, they came in their jeeps and their legs outside on the side of the car. And they were fishing trout in the creek and we would, as boys, find worms for them and trade them for a chewing gum, for example. And I became friends with a very big guy, a G.I., the first African American, the first Black person that I ever saw. And he was huge. I mean, I can compare him a little bit to Shaquille O’Neal. A huge man with the biggest heart on God’s wide earth and a very wonderful voice — a booming, wonderful voice. And I spoke to him. My mother said, “In which language did you speak?” I said, “I spoke in American with him.” How I communicated, I don’t know, I was something like four years old. And also some food came through care packages and I blessed the heart of America for sending us this food. In one case, one of the packages contained a book and it was Winnie the Pooh. Whoever packed it in there, I do not know. Blessed be his or her heart because it was in German translation and my mother would read it to us and all the neighboring children. We would pack into this tiny kitchen, which was the only place with a little stove. It was warm in winter, and we packed the place, and she would read Winnie the Pooh. And that’s how I see and remember America in Germany. Of course, they were occupiers. Of course, the country was destroyed. I mean, cities like Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Würzburg, you just name it. I mean, nothing left, only rubble. And still it was a wonderful time for children.
LEVITT: My wife’s family comes from Würzburg. That’s where the grandmother lives that I was talking with. On the other side, her grandfather lived in a remote Bavarian village under circumstances not so different than you. So in my limited exposure to rural Germany, I’ve gotten the sense that very few people leave. The idea that someone from there would become a filmmaker, would make films all over the world, totally preposterous. And yet somehow, weren’t you already pitching projects to funders when you were a teenager?
HERZOG: Sure, I did. And I was thrown out of all the offices instantly. I tried to avoid physical contact because my puberty was late and I was still not grown up yet as a 15 year old. And when producers saw me, I mean, they couldn’t believe what they saw. And one of them slaps his thigh and laughed, “Ah ha ha ha, the kindergarten is trying to make films nowadays.” Which angered me, since I was in a way self reliant already. I started to earn the money for my first productions. I knew I had to do that, otherwise I would never make a film. And I started to work in a steel factory at night. I worked the night shift as a welder. And during day I would be in school, mostly dozing, but I somehow made it and finished school as well. But I, I knew I had to be self reliant. I had to earn money. And it’s until today — there are cases where I know money will be very hard to find for this project. My very last feature film, for example, which I shot in Japan, it’s called Family Romance, LLC, and I knew it would be very hard to find the finances, so I didn’t hesitate and I immediately financed it out of my own pocket. And I earned money through other films before and I invested the money. So it happens until today.
LEVITT: I’m just trying to imagine this 15 year old version of you. You have very little money. I can’t imagine — do you have film equipment? I mean, how were you going to shoot a movie?
HERZOG: Yes, how? At the time it was harder. Today you can shoot a movie on your cell phone and you edit it on your laptop, but at the time it was 35 millimeter celluloid. And I took a camera — there are myths that I stole it. It was not really that much stolen. Film school didn’t exist and I was always self taught. I would never have applied to film school. But there was some sort of a predecessor of the film school, which was an institute for film and TV, and they would hand out these cameras to aspiring filmmakers for a few days for shooting, and they never gave me any of these cameras, although I applied with serious projects. So one day I find myself in this place where they hand out the cameras and all of a sudden nobody’s in the room. And I looked at the cameras, and I picked one out, and then another one, and looked through the viewfinder. And then I wanted to see a large distance shot and I walked outside and I’m in the street and I’m focusing the camera and I thought, “Man, you are outside with this camera.” And I just walked away. Because it was a Friday and I wanted to film Saturday, Sunday and return it quietly on Monday. But I kept the camera because I was filming on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, so I just kept it. And I, I thought, “Well, the camera finally fulfills its destiny now, and I’m the one who should really use it.” So there’s myths I stole my first camera. Technically, yes, but it was more like an expropriation. I think there was a natural right for me to use a camera like that.
We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Werner Herzog after this short break.
* * *
LEVITT: Hollywood has so come to dominate the movie industry, but there was a time in the 1920s and the 1930s where many of the best movies came from German directors, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, I don’t know, Ernst Lubitsch, or maybe even Leni Riefenstahl. But when I asked my German in-laws about those old German movies, they’ve never even heard of them. Were you aware of this golden age of German cinema growing up?
HERZOG: No. I had no clue and I didn’t see any good films or any significant films until I was 11. I did not even know of the existence of cinema until a traveling projectionist dropped by at the little schoolhouse. And it was lousy and didn’t interest me. And later I saw bad films in the city of Munich when we returned to Munich for high school. I was not aware that there was very good German cinema in the 20s and 30s. But Hollywood has never really been anything of great interest for me, although I live in Los Angeles. But I live there because I fell in love and I’m happily married in Los Angeles.
LEVITT: You shot your first films with that expropriated camera, right? In the early 1960s?
HERZOG: Yes, ‘61 I think I made my first film, age 19.
LEVITT: And then by the time 1972 rolls around, that’s when you’ll make a very famous movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
HERZOG: Well, it’s a historical film, which nobody would ever touch under $50 million or so, but I had a grand total budget of, I think, $360,000.
LEVITT: It seems like the shooting of that movie serves as a microcosm of your life. There’s this grand vision, the chaos, the overcoming of impossible obstacles. I’m not sure if young people listening will be familiar with that movie, but it’s a story of Conquistadors searching for the legendary city of gold, El Dorado.
HERZOG: So it was very, very hard, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the nature of the beast. And of course my first book, Of Walking in Ice, when I traveled on foot from Munich to Paris. Writing has been all the time equally with filmmaking. Right now, as I’m publishing my memoirs, I try to insist: look at the writer. Because I was a writer all my life, and coincidentally I also make films. But films are a distraction right now because my prose, my poetry will outlive my films. There’s more force in it, more substance. The style, the prose itself has something which is different from others who are writing at this moment. So I’m a writer who also makes films. I’m not a filmmaker who also writes.
LEVITT: So let’s talk about that journey from Munich to Paris, because I think it says a lot about you. What prompted you to go by foot from Munich to Paris?
HERZOG: Well, I’m a lazy bum like anyone else. I wouldn’t travel on foot easily. But if it’s something of real deep existential importance, I would do anything on foot. In this case, my mentor, an old Jewish woman, Lotte Eisner, who fled Nazi Germany on the very day Hitler took power — she was in danger, they were after her, and she was hiding in France. And she wrote about cinema and she was very good friends with all the great filmmakers, like Fritz Lang and Murnau and others, and she was a mentor of mine. And out of the blue, a friend calls me from Paris, and he says, “Come quickly, Lotte is dying. She had a massive stroke.” Lotte Eisner was about 80. So I immediately looked for a moment into train connections, flight connections, and I said to myself after a few minutes, “No, you’re not gonna fly, you’re not gonna take a car. I will travel on foot. I will not allow her to die. I will walk up against it, that will be like a pilgrimage or like one million steps in defiance of her dying away.” And I knew she would be out of hospital when I arrived on foot. And she didn’t know that I was coming on foot, and when I arrived after almost a thousand kilometers — and it was winter, it storms against me — I arrived and she was out of hospital.
LEVITT: I think it says something about you and your view of the universe that you set out on foot to save her, but you didn’t bother to tell her. Because as an economist, I can imagine a world where if you told someone you were walking to them, it might serve as inspiration.
HERZOG: No, no, no, it would have additionally worried her. And I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. It just came on foot. And we are creatures made for traveling on foot. Only after tens of thousands of years, we are using a bicycle or an airplane or a car. And it was also interesting — when she called me to Paris about eight years later, she must have been around 88, and she said, “Come quickly, this time you take a train or you take a plane.” So I took an overnight train. And she said to me, “I’m almost blind. The joy of my life, to read books, I cannot do that anymore. The other joy of my life, to watch movies, I cannot do that anymore. And I can barely walk anymore, only on crutches.” And she said something very biblical, like in the Old Testament. “Noah, having lived 820 years,” comma, “saturated of life, died.” And she said something like that; she said, “I’m saturated of life.” Lebenszeit, in German — a wonderful word. And then she said, “But there’s still this spell upon me that I must not die, that I’m not allowed to die.” And she looked at me and she said, “Can you lift this spell?” But in a charming way. And she had a sip of tea and munched on a cookie, and I was munching on a cookie, and I said to her, “Lotte, the spell is hereby lifted.” And she died eight days later. And I had the feeling it was good. Yes, she was saturated of life now. And I, as a filmmaker and as a professional, had become strong enough to be without guidance and without mentor. It was good then.
LEVITT: Another one of your books that has had a tremendous impact on me — I think about it all the time — it’s called The Twilight World. And it tells the story of Hiroo Onoda. Could you talk a bit about his story and how you came to know Hiroo Onoda?
HERZOG: While I was in Japan, I staged an opera. Sometimes I do odd things like staging an opera or acting in a film or whatever. And all of a sudden everybody’s completely excited because in the media it was known that I was staging the world premiere of a just-composed modern opera. And the office of the emperor has stretched out the feelers, “If you would be prepared and willing to meet the emperor in a private audience.” And I immediately said, “Oh my God, don’t stretch out the feelers any further from our side. Because I wouldn’t know what to speak to the Emperor, and it would be probably all formulaic, and I’m lost, and please don’t pursue it at all from our side.”
LEVITT: That’s got to be completely verboten in Japanese society, to turn down a request from the emperor.
HERZOG: When I said, “No let’s not pursue this, let’s not do anything about it,” there was silence around the table, about a dozen people, and the silence was so painful that until today, I feel this kind of embarrassment, this deep sense of shame. I’m sitting in a solid chair here in front of a microphone, but I wish I could sink into the ground into a bottomless pit right now. And all of a sudden, into the silence, there’s a voice: “Whom else but the Emperor would you then like to meet in Japan?” And I said, “Onoda. Hiroo Onoda.” He was the last Japanese soldier who surrendered on a jungle island of the Philippines 29 years after the end of the war, still believing that the war was still on because he observed signs. He saw in the early 50s fighter planes crossing overhead, going west. But that was already the next war of America in Korea. He read the signs correctly, but not having the bigger picture, he was somehow wrong and tragically fighting a war that was over. It was a fictitious war. I met him and had an immediate, very deep rapport with him. And the book is actually based on my meeting him and knowing him and conversations with him. And right after that, I finished the book and I was looking out the window and my wife looked at me and was puzzled. And she said, “What are you thinking?” I said, “I’m thinking of nothing.” “What are you looking at out there?” I said, “I’m not looking at anything.” And she said, “Well, I feel you’re warmed up writing. Why don’t you continue writing?” So I said, “Okay, yes.” Sat down and write my memoirs.
LEVITT: Can I ask you more about Onoda? What I found so interesting intellectually about him is that there were many attempts to convince him the war had ended, but he had built in his mind a very strong belief, following orders he was given to not give up the island. So, for instance, I guess the Americans or someone had dropped leaflets but he thought it was a fraud.
HERZOG: Yes, one of the things that he found were leaflets telling him the war ended in August 1945 for Japan and that he should surrender. And he immediately thought, “Oh yeah, that was the enemy trying to persuade him to surrender.” And all these signs that he collected created an almost quasi-religious belief system that is beyond logic from a certain moment on. In the 29 years that he held the island, I mean he was hiding in the jungle, but would step out once or twice a year and fire shots over the heads of startled villages and raid the village, for example, for some food or cloth on a clothesline for mending his uniform. So there was actually war action. And he survived 111 ambushes. He was fired at and how he dodged it, how he kept moving is just phenomenal.
LEVITT: The story about how this ends is just incredible. Can you tell how his 29 year saga ends?
HERZOG: Yes. A young university dropout from Tokyo named Suzuki, like the motorcycles — he drops out and before he starts earning money and entering business life, he has three goals: Number one, find Onoda on Lubang Island, which nobody managed in 29 years. Second, find a panda bear in its original habitat in China. Three, find the abominable snowman, the Yeti, in the Himalayas. So he sets out to Lubang with a little tourist tent and within one and a half days, Onoda stumbles into him, almost shoots him, so the young man, 22 years old, waves a little Japanese flag and shouts, “I’m Japanese, don’t kill me, don’t kill me.” So — and Onoda, with the rifle pointed at him, listens a whole night about what has happened since 1945. And it’s so convincing and so detailed that Onoda says, “I still only half believe you and you will not lure me out of the jungle, but if Japan sends an officer, a military officer, who gives me competent military orders to cease hostilities, then I will surrender. Let’s meet here three weeks later.” And actually, Suzuki comes back with a reactivated officer who knew Onoda. And he explains to Onoda, “The Imperial Japanese Army orders you to cease hostilities. You will surrender,” which he did. It was totally amazing and when he surrendered there were immediately radio reports about him in Tokyo, in Japan, and it was as if the heart of a whole nation stood still for an entire minute. And he returned to Japan and was completely disappointed that Japan had become a consumerist country and had lost its soul, in his opinion. And he moved to Brazil. Half the time he would spend with a brother who had emigrated to Brazil, and he started a cattle ranch, and the other half year he would be back in Japan teaching school children in survival skills. So, that’s Onoda.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Werner Herzog. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about why Werner once took a job as a rodeo clown in Mexico.
* * *
I’m eager to talk with Werner Herzog about the economics of the movie business and also about his acting career. People by generation know him as a film director, working behind the scenes to the younger generation, he’s more famous for his work in front of the camera.
LEVITT: I’d like to talk about the economics of film. So let’s go back to Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
HERZOG: Nobody wanted to see the film. The reviews were very bad. There was once a good review and I was invited to the theater in Frankfurt. I went there and I’m taken up on stage and there are seven people out there in a huge theater. So you’ve got to survive something like that. You have to cope with it. And the real good reviews, they came years later. It was not helpful that they were so late, but today, the film Aguirre, The Wrath of God is some sort of a household name among cineasts.
LEVITT: My own experience with movies is somewhat like what you’re describing. They made a documentary about our book, Freakonomics, and it played in the theaters. And so on the first weekend, I went to the theater and I took my young children with me, and it was us and two other people. In the entire auditorium, and —
HERZOG: Yes, you had the experience as well. Wonderful. I shake your hand over the distance.
LEVITT: And at the end of the movie, one of my young children went up to the other two people and said, “That was a movie about my dad.” And they looked at me and they thought, “Wow, that’s a weird kid. And who would bring a kid to a movie like this?” And they walked out. I think they didn’t even understand that indeed I was the subject of it. And it only played — I think it managed not to survive that first weekend.
HERZOG: But you have to survive it and you have to carry on. And by now I have made some 70, 80 films or so. But you really have to follow a vision, it’s not iron will. It’s a clarity of vision that carries a film and carries a crew with you and carries actors along with you. And it’s the clarity of a vision and a voice that you need for writing a book. So it’s, it’s something you have to have in you as a writer, as a filmmaker.
LEVITT: I’m curious generally about the economics surrounding your movies. How does the financing work? Do your films tend to make money?
HERZOG: They do, but never in the proportions of a mainstream, let’s say, Star Wars movie. It doesn’t do it. It’s very minor in comparison to those, but enough to somehow guarantee my survival. But it’s not only that. Financial things are not the only survival. It’s faith that moves mountains. It’s a vision that carries a ship over a mountain. It’s other things beyond cash money. You are schooled into economics. You are looking at filmmaking only from the side of finances. There are many other elements that make a movie.
LEVITT: I’ve heard that when you ran, — did you call it the Rogue Film School?
HERZOG: The Rogue Film School.
LEVITT: Can you tell me, what were the two specific skills that you taught the students who came to your film school?
HERZOG: Well, I do not make any promises. I only tell everyone out there: it will be a counterpoint against what you normally learn in film schools. Young people spend way too much time in film schools. It’s way too expensive, way too long. And I don’t like the kind of teaching there. So I said, “Two things I really will teach you. Number one: lock picking. And number two: forging of documents,” like forging a shooting permit. And a film like Fitzcarraldo could not have been made without massive forgery, so you have to have the right criminal energy and the skills to learn. Because my ship was stopped. We were shot at and we were stopped and one military camp sprung up after the other on this Amazon tributary. We did not know that a border war was just about to break out between Ecuador and Peru. And we were not allowed to navigate on this river. And I said to the colonel who ran the camp, I said, “I move here because I have a shooting permit.” And he said, “Show it to me.” And I said, “Unfortunately, it’s in the capital city of Lima.” And he said, “Bring it to me.” I said, “But it will take four days until I send somebody out of the jungle and return.” In this four days, we forged a document that was wonderful, in very old Spanish of Spanish Bureaucracy, and it was signed by the President, Belaúnde, El Presidente de la Republica. And it was on very special stationery with watermarks and things of the presidential office. And I came back and I said, “Sir, Colonel, I have the permit. Read it.” So he starts to look at it and reads, and it’s four pages or so. He leafs back to the last page, signature of the President of the Republic himself, and he just salutes and he said, “Paserle, move on. Just move.” And that was that. We wouldn’t have a film without that.
LEVITT: You do both feature films and documentaries.
HERZOG: And I act, and I stage operas, and I play soccer, and I write books. Don’t harp, don’t go too much into the filmmaker. Somehow, coincidentally, I’m a filmmaker next to my writing.
LEVITT: So, point well taken. The thing I’m curious about is whether you see documentaries and feature films as distinct.
HERZOG: They’re all movies. I don’t like to speak about feature films or documentaries. I’m a writer. I’m a poet.
LEVITT: When I hear some of the stories about your own life, my reaction is that you aren’t so different than some of the characters who show up in your movies. You have done things that regular people never would experience. So, for instance, you were a rodeo clown in Mexico at one point, right?
HERZOG: Yeah, well, I had to survive. I had a scholarship in the United States, in Pittsburgh, and I love Pittsburgh. And I was adopted by a family there and I love them dearly. And I gave up my scholarship within a week or so. It was not the right thing. And I violated my visa status and I started to work. And ultimately, after six months, I had to leave the country. I would have been shipped back to Germany, but I didn’t want that, and so I went to Mexico and I had to survive somehow. And I earned, on weekends, at what is called chariadas, some sort of rodeos, like riding on young bulls, which is kind of ridiculous because you are tossed in the air within two seconds flat. And everybody in the arena saw this guy has never been on a horseback either, so it was like an arena clown. But I earned money, and I didn’t do harm to anyone, and it was fine and good like that. I would do things to stay independent, to stay afloat.
LEVITT: Your next job you were an international smuggler, right?
HERZOG: Well, smuggler — there was a weak spot on the border between Mexico and the United States. Rio Grande, Texas, in Reynosa on the Mexican side, McAllen on the American side. And some of the wealthy rancheros wanted to have, for example, stereo units brought in from United States because it was much less expensive. And at that time, and I’m speaking of 1964, there were daily laborers from Reynosa who would cross the river and work in McAllen, and they had stickers in the window which identified them as day laborers. They would return at night. And I somehow obtained one of these stickers and I was waved through and I came back and I had brought a few things. And people say I smuggled weapons. Yes, I did. Once I smuggled a colt, which had to be sterling silver — a very rich ranchero wanted to have a sterling silver colt and a silver bullet. So it was not even available in McAllen. They had to order it, and I came a few weeks later. So technically, yes, I smuggled a firearm, but it would only fire a silver bullet.
LEVITT: Silver bullets are a real thing?
HERZOG: Uh no, they didn’t actually exist. There was only real bullets. That turned out to be my problem, and I describe it in my memoirs. This wealthy ranchero actually didn’t want to take the pistol from me. I had to pay it in advance from my own pocket, and he wouldn’t want to take it because there was no silver bullet. They didn’t exist at all. So it took me weeks until I finally persuaded him, buy it from me. And he ultimately did, but it was miserable.
LEVITT: I’m surprised that someone of your sophistication couldn’t have forged a reasonable facsimile of a silver bullet and passed it off to the satisfaction of the ranchero.
HERZOG: Well, it was not the time. I was only 22 or so, or 23. So, you learn it bit by bit. You become street smart after many defeats.
LEVITT: People I know sometimes ask me who the next person is that I’m talking to on the podcast. And can I tell you something which I found shocking? Three people asked me that question over the last few days, and I mentioned your name, and all three had the exact same response. They said, “Oh my God, you’re talking to The Client from The Mandalorian?” They couldn’t have been more excited. These were all people in their 20s. I think they had no idea that you wrote books or you made films. Did you ever imagine that for the current generation, it would be your acting that would make you a household name?
HERZOG: It’s fine, yes, I accept it and I accept it with pride because, let’s face it, I was convincing in the part. And I was particularly convincing as a real badass, bad guy. I don’t mind at all. But many of these young people start to discover, “Well, this guy made films and wrote books,” and they get interested. And 90 percent of the emails that I receive nowadays, they are curious about asking — for example, the Japanese soldier of my book The Twilight World, and they ask about films and ask about all sorts of things. And it’s a 15, 16, 17 years old who is the bulk of the mail and requests and curiosity that I get. And now my books can be found easily in the bookstore or online, and my films can be found on the internet, and all of a sudden they start to discover it. And part of it, a stepping stone to some, is: “There’s an actor in The Mandalorian,” and they become curious.
LEVITT: As I hear you say that, you sound as if you have an optimism about the future. Is that accurate?
HERZOG: I don’t like to be in the category of being optimistic or pessimistic. It doesn’t work for me. And of course, I know that biologically we are fragile as a species, and I know that we have something in us that is self destructive. As societies, we can see it every day. And I do not believe that our species is gonna survive very long. We will die out like dinosaurs died out. Doesn’t make me nervous. I don’t need to be an optimist or a pessimist.
LEVITT: You’ve seen a lot of changes over your lifetime. Would you classify those as mostly good or mostly bad?
HERZOG: No, that’s the wrong question. I’ve seen a lot of changes within one single lifetime. Normally, let’s say, a generation sees the change from the pre-industrial to the industrial age. All of a sudden you have machines and locomotives and so on. But I’ve seen it all because I grew up in a pre-industrialized peasant environment and there were almost like serfs working at the farm. And I’ve seen now in the Midwest gigantic harvesters that go by G.P.S. informations over five miles. And I’ve all the way seen it to robotic agriculture — robots plant the seeds. they water it, they put the artificial light as if it were sunlight, they harvest, they package it for the supermarket, all robotic. And the same in communications. I personally have seen the town crier walking up in this village and crying out, “Attention, attention, please do not miss the date for registering your child for school,” or things like that. And I’ve seen it all the way from newspapers, television, radio, telephones, and now the internet and now artificial intelligence and fake news and you just name it. It’s phenomenal. All in one single lifetime.
Well, that was different. I’ve interviewed a lot of guests, more than 100. And Werner Herzog is the first one who didn’t want to discuss the work that made him famous. I must have tried to get him talking about his movies at 4 or 5 different points in the conversation, and he resisted every time. It’s fascinating to me that he sees writing as his primary legacy. But I’m pretty skeptical. I’m just guessing here, but I suspect a hundred times more people have seen his movies than read his books. Or maybe we’re both wrong, and it’s his acting that audiences will remember. One thing’s for sure: it’s nice to have so many talents that people can disagree about which will create the most enduring legacy.
LEVITT: Now is the time where we take a listener question, and as always, I bring Morgan, our producer, on to help me out.
LEVEY: Hi, Steve! When we interviewed Kevin Kelly, who’s a futurist and the founder of Wired Magazine, you two discussed A.I., artificial intelligence. And you told Kevin that you’d love to have an A.I. friend who would just feed you great ideas for economic papers. Well, a listener named Michael wrote to us and said he’d been playing around with ChatGPT, and he sent us a list of potential economic papers all sourced from ChatGPT. Some examples from his list are, “Interdisciplinary Dark Matter: A Comparative Study of Invisible Assets in Astrophysics and Economics,” or, “Market Mycelium: Economic Networks Modeled on Fungal Systems.” Another one that was my favorite from the list is, “The Economics of Time Travel: A Hypothetical Investigation.” So what do you think? Are you ready to use ChatGPT’s suggestions and dive into some research on the economics of time travel?
LEVITT: When I saw what Michael produced in terms of economic ideas, I was amazed at how awful they seemed. They were awful in the sense that they didn’t make any sense at all. And the ideas weren’t even consistent with the basic structure of what an economics paper would look like. But Morgan, it surprised me how bad these economics ideas were because, before we interviewed David Simon, who created The Wire, and who is very stridently against A.I. I thought I would test out A.I. in the context of coming up with ideas for Seinfeld episodes to bounce them off him and see whether he thought they were good or not. But honestly, the ideas I got from ChatGPT on Seinfeld were so good, I was afraid to even mention them to David Simon because I thought he would flip. So let me give you some of those examples and you tell me whether you think I’m totally crazy. Here’s just one random one that popped up. It’s called, “The Cosmo Chronicles: Inspired by Kramer’s wild stories, Jerry decides to write a book chronicling all of Cosmo Kramer’s eccentric adventures. However, when the book becomes a bestseller, Jerry faces backlash from the people who recognize themselves as characters in his stories.” That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
LEVEY: I mean, sure, I think that coming up with a summary and a basic idea for an episode is very different than actually writing an episode, but that’s not too outside the realm of a plausible Seinfeld episode.
LEVITT: Because it’s also true for an economics paper. Obviously, the title of the economics paper tells you very little about the work and the intent that goes into it, but it was just that the ChatGPT titles of the economics papers were nonsensical to me. Let me give you another example that I thought was kind of interesting. “The Binge-Watching Marathon: Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer become obsessed with a popular new TV show and decide to have a binge watching marathon. As they dive deeper into the series, their obsession begins to take over their lives, leading to hilarious consequences.” I mean, that just sounds to me exactly like a Seinfeld episode.
LEVEY: Actually, yeah, that’s pretty good and pretty spot on.
LEVITT: Here’s another one, just one more. “The Parking Spot: Kramer discovers the ultimate parking spot, but it turns out to be in high demand, when Jerry, George, and Elaine all end up competing to secure the spot, leading to a series of comical mishaps and schemes.” See, it makes you laugh. You laugh at each of these. These are awesome.
LEVEY: Well that actually reminds me of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, which is when they forget their parking spot in a mall parking garage and they spend the whole episode just wandering around it. So yeah, I could also see that being a valid Seinfeld episode.
LEVITT: So anyway, I can see why TV writers are nervous about ChatGPT, but the point you made is really the most important one. Presumably, ChatGPT is a lot better at coming up with these one-line summaries than it is at writing great, humorous dialogue. So I think even the TV writers don’t have very much to be worried about at this time.
LEVEY: Probably true. And, to be fair, Michael, the listener who wrote in, he was filtering ChatGPT’s ideas based on the most creative paper titles. He did have a few more that were more specific to you, Steve Levitt, as a microeconomist, but I’m just most excited by “Market Mycelium: Economic Networks Modeled on Fungal Systems.” Can’t wait to read that one of yours. Michael, thank you so much for spending some time with ChatGPT. If you have a question for us, our email is PIMA@freakonomics.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. We read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
In two weeks we’ll be back with a brand new episode featuring Helen Czerski. She’s a physicist at University College London who studies everyday things like explosions, bubbles, and the ocean.
CZERSKI: It’s about showing people that physics is not beyond them. It’s part of their world and they do know it, they just have to look at it and see the patterns.
Thanks for listening and we’ll see you back soon.
* * *
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: I only recently watched Grizzly Man, which is a documentary you’ve made. It’s a story of a man who lives for many years in and among grizzlies. He did love the bears and the bears cared for him as well.
HERZOG: No, they did not. They ate him.
- Werner Herzog, filmmaker, author, and actor.
- Every Man for Himself and God Against All, by Werner Herzog (2023).
- The Mandalorian, TV show (2019-2023).
- The Twilight World, by Werner Herzog (2021).
- Family Romance, LLC, film by Werner Herzog (2019).
- Fitzcarraldo, film by Werner Herzog (1982).
- Of Walking in Ice, by Werner Herzog (1978).
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God, film by Werner Herzog (1972).
- Rogue Film School.