The pursuit of happiness might be enshrined into the US Declaration of Independence and arguably the basis for western civilization, but for legendary German director Werner Herzog, the concept is unimportant. "I find it odd that people are striving for happiness as a primary goal in life," Herzog said during a panel at this week's Sundance's Film Festival in Utah. "I find it silly." But Herzog — who shared the panel with The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer — argues he's not a proper nihilist, just focused on loftier ideals. "I'm interested in other things. Hope or no hope, optimism," he said. "Being part of something meaningful like striving for justice, or equal rights for all humanity. It's a much more dignified goal than personal happiness. Who cares about that?"
That happiness doesn't interest him should be fairly obvious to anyone who's watched one of his movies. Herzog has made a career directing gruelling films, both in their subject matter, and their production — the infamous shoot for Fitzcarraldo involved lugging an entire steamship over a mountain in the stifling jungles of South America, saw its leading actor come down with dysentry, and was nearly derailed countless times by the wild rages of longtime Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski.
Oppenheimer, too, has focused more on Herzog's ideal of justice than any form of happiness in his movies. His 2013 documentary The Act of Killing relives the Indonesian military coup and subsequent genocide of 1965 and 1966 by interviewing the people responsible for the deaths, and asking them to reenact their crimes for his cameras. Oppenheimer says his aim as a filmmaker is to "make visible the lies, the delusions, the self-deceptions that constitute the immoral imagination that allows us to imagine everything is fine when it's really catastrophic."
Both directors faced ordeals in making their movies
Key to that is understanding that human beings are amalgams of good and bad, Oppenheimer says, and being careful not to lump people in what he calls "the Star Wars morality." The director says the press is complicit in this problem, too easily marshaling facts to judge people and casting them as paragons of virtue or evil monsters. "There's this confusion of condemnation for comprehension in journalism," Oppenheimer says. Even speaking to professed murderers in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer refuses to call them monsters, justifying their boasts about body counts as ways to normalize the guilt and shame they're feeling.
Like Herzog, Oppenheimer too faced an ordeal in making The Act of Killing and its follow-up, 2014's The Look of Silence. The director took a decade to finish making the movies, saw his sources threatened by perpetrators of the genocide still in power, and faced up to known murderers to ask them about their crimes.
Both directors are known for handling weighty topics. Herzog took the time to address exactly where he gets his ideas from, and why he can't just back away from ordeals like Fitzcarraldo. "They come upon me like burglars in the night," he said. "I do not make much choice. They're all of a sudden there, and one of the four burglars in your kitchen comes wildly swinging at you, so you'd better deal with that one first." It's an evocative image, made more effective by Herzog's trademark deadpan delivery and an accent that stretches vowels out into notes of portent. His voice, coupled with his face — naturally inclined to gloom — has given the lauded director a second career as a fictional villain, memorably appearing as a finger-chewing gang leader in Tom Cruise-led action film Jack Reacher.
"I'm considered the gloomy Teutonic dangerously living guy," he told the Sundance panel. "There's no better villain in Jack Reacher than me. There's some others but they yell and they open fire. They're not really dangerous, they do not look dangerous. But I can do it. I can do it with great ease." But despite the demeanour, Herzog says he's not as dour or dangerous in his private life, characterizing himself as a "fluffy husband." He's even started to knowingly skewer his image on TV shows, making a cameo on the last season of Parks and Rec as the unsettling owner of a dilapidated and quite probably haunted old house. And why wouldn't he? "There's a part out there that pays me handsomely to be frightening to the audience," he explained to the panel. "Of course I do accept it."