This might not be 100% doc related, but anything involving Werner Herzog is probably worth mentioning around here, so…I wanted to talk about Alan Greenberg’s new book ‘Every Night The Trees Disappear’. It chronicles the making of Herzog’s fiction film ‘Heart of Glass’, in which the director famously hypnotized his entire cast. Herzog is a filmmaker who blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, so it was no surprise that Greenberg’s book reveals some interesting insights that might be of value to those interested in documentary filmmaking.
The book is laid out in an interesting way, breaking up the anecdotal “making of” segments with what Herzog — in the foreward — refers to as “Scenarios”. These are segments of the Heart of Glass script — some of which were never shot — that are relevant to the behind-the-scenes stories, providing a little context for those readers who might not have seen the final film and tracing the genesis of the project. I have seen the film and while it’s not one of my favourites in Herzog’s filmography, it is definitely in line with his sensibilities. As for the story behind the project; it’s not quite as epic as Fitzcarraldo (which was thoroughly documented in Herzog’s book ‘Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo’ and Les Blank’s documentary film ‘Burden of Dreams’), but Greenberg manages to provide a wonderful personal account of his relationship with Herzog and his involvement in making Heart of Glass. He tells a great story about one of the first times he met the legendary filmmaker, interviewing him for a film journal. Herzog’s disinterest in the interview eventually led to an invite for Greenberg to work with him on his next film, saying “There is work to be done, and we will do it well. On the outside we’ll look like gangsters, while on the inside we’ll wear the gowns of priests.” This is followed by a crazy story in which Herzog takes Greenberg and production manager Walter Saxer on a trip to confront a producer who owed him money. He and Saxer pulled rifles from the trunk and picked the lock of the producer’s home, only to find the place empty. One wonders how that meeting might have gone down otherwise. Just one more piece of intrigue in the fantastic mythology of Werner Herzog.
Herzog’s filmmaking process is as much a physical one as it is a creative one. In the book he talks about the importance of physical labour when making his films, saying “a man who is a coward with his body is a coward with his mind as well.” Numerous legendary stories can attest to this, as Herzog is more than happy to recount tales of scaling active volcanoes and pulling ships over mountains in service of his art. It’s interesting hearing about this process from Greenberg, acting as first hand verification of truth behind the unbelievable stories we’ve heard Herzog share over the years. Much like his willingness to inject staged events within his documentaries, it seems Herzog can’t resist heightening the drama — and humour — within his own autobiography. His search for an ‘ecstatic truth’ isn’t limited to his films, but seems to include his reflections on his own life story. This is captured nicely by one of my favourite quotes from the book: “I do not deform; I stylize for the sake of a new perspective.” To me, this perfectly sums up Herzog’s philosophy on storytelling, both on and off screen. It also reflects Greenberg’s treatment of this material. Every Night the Trees Disappear is a valuable document and should provide Herzog fans with a fresh set of stories that to my knowledge, haven’t been retold through the multiple films, books, and speaking engagements Herzog has been participating in over the years.
Every Night The Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass is available now through Chicago Review Press. I recommend Herzog fans pick up a copy via your favourite book retailer.