Throughout his prolific, provocative and famously independent career, Werner Herzog has brought a probing, operatic intensity to each of his films. The 73-year-old director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man and nearly 70 other features and documentaries, "has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting," Roger Ebert once observed. "Even his failures are spectacular."
Now a full-time resident of Los Angeles, he's still making movies that way—Lo and Behold, his late-to-the-party but no less penetrating exploration of the connected world, comes to theaters in August and has a lot to say about what motivates, inspires and confounds him as a filmmaker. That's one reason he created his Rogue Film School, a series of "infrequent" (roughly once a year) four-day seminars for some five dozen people he has delivered in person at locations around the world since 2009.
Visit the series' Web site and you'll find a set of defining principles that exude Herzogian creed with a technology-free passion for craft, poetry and his chosen "way of life": "The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted," he writes. "It is for those who have traveled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lock-picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favoring their projects."
He teaches all of those things in his seminars, requires each participant to complete a viewing and reading list—including Virgil's Georgics and The Warren Commission, which he continues to recommend during public appearances—and prohibits the use of "laptops, iPads, cell phones, and recording devices of any kind." That's necessary, he believes, for active participation but also to help his students better understand how he achieves his filmic holy grail: "illumination and an ecstasy of truth."
Ten years before he launched Rogue Film School, Herzog introduced his theory of "ecstatic truth" in filmmaking in the Minnesota Declaration, a personal/professional manifesto that laid out his separatist views on cinema verité. He delivered it publicly with Roger Ebert at his side during a Q&A at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The museum's tribute to Herzog featured a month-long series of his diverse body of work that has eddied between features and documentaries from the start. Reading it now, one can almost see Herzog popping up in Westeros, a voice-over knight of the realm — or virtuous High Sparrow — with camera in hand: "Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.…The gauntlet is hereby thrown down."
To gain an audience with the master in his Rogue Film School seminars, the most recent of which took place in Munich in March, one must first spend $25 to apply, then pay a $1500 fee upon acceptance. You might get lucky and hear bits of his curated philosophy during a screening Q&A or at international conferences, but the longform masterclass is clearly where Herzog shines. (Back in 2006, however, he had not yet embraced his own professorial potential in this interview with StudioDaily's former sister publication Film & Video.)
A more affordable and accessible option is coming to the Internet this summer: San Francisco-based MasterClass will present Herzog's five-hour lesson in feature and documentary techniques. The director will touch on such topics as storytelling, financing, leading a crew, cinematography, working with actors, locations, editing, and interview techniques. Pre-enrollment for the $90 session opened last week and MasterClass CEO and co-founder David Rogier couldn't be more thrilled. Herzog "is fearless," he says. "He inspires, pushes and teaches you how to see the world differently and then capture it for an audience." Plus, adds co-founder and Creative Director Aaron Rasmussen, "The class will save you from personally having to drag a ship over a mountain in the Amazon or go to Antarctica in the freezing cold."