He's risked his life to make films, been shot at, and his latest film investigates a triple homicide. So is Werner Herzog fascinated by death? No, he tells Steve Rose, he's just not afraid of it
Werner Herzog: 'If we perish I want to see what's coming at me, and if we survive, I want to see it as well.' Photograph: Thomas Rabsch
Some years ago, Werner Herzog was on an internal flight somewhere in Colorado and the plane's landing gear wouldn't come down. They would have to make an emergency landing. The runway was covered in foam and flanked by scores of fire engines. "We were ordered to crouch down with our faces on our knees and hold our legs," says Herzog, "and I refused to do it." The stewardess was very upset, the co-pilot came out from the cabin and ordered him to do as he was told. "I said, 'If we perish I want to see what's coming at me, and if we survive, I want to see it as well. I'm not posing a danger to anyone by not being in this shitty, undignified position.'" In the end, the plane landed normally. Herzog was banned from the airline for life but, he laughs, it went bust two years later anyway.Herzog tells this story to illustrate how he'll face anything that's thrown at him, as if that was ever in any doubt. Now approaching his 70th birthday, the German film-maker has assumed legendary status for facing things others wouldn't. He's lived a life packed with intrepid movie shoots, far-flung locations and general high-stakes film-making. He has a biography too dense to summarise. But his tale also confirms the suspicion that he's helplessly drawn to danger and death. Or vice versa.
In his latest documentary, Herzog faces death more squarely than ever. The full title of the film is Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life, and its subject matter is a grisly triple homicide that's rendered even more tragic by its pointlessness. Herzog covers all bases, talking to the perpetrators (one of whom was subsequently executed), their families, the victims' family, the authorities, and so on. He dispenses with his trademark Bavarian-accented voiceover here, though his gently forthright questioning and nose for everyday surrealism prove remarkably effective. When he asks the prison chaplain, "Please describe an encounter with a squirrel," for example, he gets an emotional outpouring on the beauty of life and the horror of watching another human being die.
Herzog's fictional features often entertain notions of civilisation fallen apart – from the mini-revolution in Even Dwarfs Started Small to the semi-abstract deserts of Fata Morgana to the psychotic barbarism of Aguirre, Wrath Of God. His documentaries, too, frequently focus on characters who've come close enough to the final curtain to almost peep behind it. There was Dieter Dengler, the shot-down pilot who nearly starved to death in Laos in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. There was Juliane Koepcke in Wings Of Hope, sole survivor of a plane that crashed into the Peruvian jungle – a plane that Herzog himself was supposed to be on. In Grizzly Man, Herzog even listens on headphones as the movie's subject is mauled to death by the wild bears he so foolishly venerated. Even when he's off duty, danger seems to seek out Herzog – as when he was randomly shot with an air rifle halfway through a television interview, or the time he rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash outside his house. The grim reaper seems to follow him like a groupie.