By William Sweet


“Mr. Skinner, I’m not a journalist; I’m a poet. Let’s get into it.”

So said legendary film director Werner Herzog, recounting how he warned a death row inmate that he would not be working for his release but simply telling his story. Speaking at Amherst in April, Herzog did share the story of convicted murderer Hank Skinner. He also showed unreleased footage from On Death Row, his documentary series that premiered in March on the Investigation Discovery TV network.

Herzog—a leader in the influential New German Cinema in the 1970s—spoke to a packed Stirn Auditorium (and to a spillover crowd watching a simulcast in Merrill) about his opposition to the death penalty, his interviews with convicted killers and his career as a film director, producer, screenwriter and actor.

For On Death Row, Herzog said, he set out to elevate crime-related television. He admitted, though, to so admiring the sonorous voiceovers used in the Lifetime series Forensic Files that he provided a similarly ominous note in narrating Encounters at the End of the World, his 2007 film about Antarctica, in which, at one point, he ponders the behavior of a suicidal penguin.

“‘He’s not returning to his colony. Pause. But why?’” Herzog intoned deeply, eliciting guffaws from the film students in Stirn.

In his wide-ranging talk, Herzog also criticized those who complain about the difficulties in getting their films made. “It has become easier,” he said, arguing that with advances in technology, it’s often just a matter of securing minimal funding.

“You can be a bouncer in a sex club and you can make it,” he continued. “I don’t like people who complain. I don’t buy it. Roll up your sleeves and make your movie, God damn it.”

Herzog didn’t stop there. Here are three other curmudgeonly morsels from the talk:

Describing psychoanalysis as a large part of why “the 20th century was a mistake,” he said, “Leave your soul dark if it is dark. … No one ever became my friend who was in psychoanalysis.”

On his recent installation at the Whitney Biennial: “I do not go into museums of contemporary art. It’s all garbage. … I felt my piece was the only piece that had dignity.”

An audience member asked the director how he maintains the confidence to pursue his vision. “I do not doubt myself,” Herzog replied, “because I do not do any self-reflection.”

Photo courtesy of Investigation Discovery