Thursday, March 6, 2008
A conversation with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in The Believer Magazine. It is very interesting at it gives a little more insight into Werner Herzog. Here is an excerpt.
II. “AN ELEPHANT WITH A MOZART SOUL”
EM: When Werner and I first met each other, we took a trip to visit this serial killer [Edmund Emil Kemper III] in prison in Northern California.
WH: Vacaville, yeah.
EM: There were three of us. And Kemper’s lawyer. To circumvent a lot of red tape, the lawyer identified us as psychiatrists. Werner’s producer, Walter Saxer, came along with us. So there was Dr. Saxer, Dr. Morris, and Dr. Herzog allowed in because—
WH: We were scared shitless because Kemper was a very huge man, fairly young, I think still twenty-six by then. But something like six foot five or six foot four.
EM: I think bigger.
WH: Maybe bigger, yes.
EM: Very large.
WH: Capital punishment was suspended at the time he was condemned. And he chose seven or eight consecutive life terms, but he wanted to die in the gas chamber. And the only way to get to the gas chamber when it was reinstated at that time was to kill someone inside the prison. So the attorney was really scared. And he was in a way relieved that he had some solid men as his guards or his company. And reading all the transcripts of Kemper, I had the feeling that what was interesting was that the man, in my opinion—and I’m speaking of Edmund Emil Kemper—he made a lot of sense. In a way he makes a lot of sense, why he killed and how it all originated.
And at the end, after having killed seven or eight or so coeds, hitchhikers, he killed his mother and put the severed head on the mantel and threw darts at it. And then there happened to be some leftover turkey in the fridge from Thanksgiving. And he called the lady next door, the neighbor, and asked—am I correct? Yeah, asked her if she would like to pick up the turkey leftovers, and she walks in and then he killed her as well, and put her in a closet. And then he fled in his mother’s car and crisscrossed the West until he ran out of money and ran out of gas. And in Pueblo, Colorado, he kept calling the police. [To Morris] You know better what happened there. I think they thought he was kind of gaga and didn’t believe him.
EM: He desperately tried to turn himself in to the police by making repeated phone calls from this phone booth. Now he would have had a cell phone. So I guess it’s easier now for serial killers to turn themselves in. And the police kept hanging up on him. They just—
WH: And he was down to his last quarter to make his last call, and then two detectives actually picked him up at this phone booth. I remember their names because they sound very German: Schmidt and Grubb. And Schmidt and Grubb took him to the police station, and what was smart of them was, they just randomly turned on a tape recorder and Kemper spoke for six hours, pretty much nonstop.
And this transcript is really wonderful—
EM: Quite amazing, yes.
WH: Very, very amazing. And Kemper was, in a way, a very sensitive person. When you looked at his hands, like the hands of a violin player, in a way. I remember he looked like an elephant with a Mozart soul.
EM: Yeah. That’s the way Werner described him at the time. An elephant with the soul of Mozart. I’m not sure that most of the prison authorities would have described him in the same way, but at the time I found Werner’s description very interesting. I thought for a long time about it. It made it situational, as if God in his infinite perversity had somehow mismatched Kemper’s various attributes in order to produce some kind of nightmare, some kind of tragedy. I remember thinking, Yeah, if Othello had been in Hamlet’s place, and vice versa, there would be no tragedy.
It’s so mixed up in my mind—Werner in these early years, graduate school, and what I myself was thinking. I was a very disaffected graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s where I first met Werner. It was just shortly after he finished Aguirre and his films were being shown in the United States for the first time. It was an amazing experience to see Werner’s work. There was really nothing quite like it in America at that time, and probably not since that time.
And I became really fascinated by Werner’s films. I’m thinking about it even now, now that we’re talking about it, our attempts to understand what people are thinking. What is going on in another person’s mind? How do they see the world? Kemper was a perfect example. I would drive every day from Berkeley to Santa Cruz and I would attend the Kemper trial. I became a regular fixture. And I would say the trial transformed my thinking about many, many, many things.
In those days, murder trials were chopped into two pieces. There would be a guilt and innocence phase and a penalty phase.
And there was this wacko psychiatrist, Dr. Joel Fort, who took the stand and said that Kemper was not even neurotic. Kemper had killed a dozen people. He had killed his grandparents. He had been put away in a juvenile facility, released under California law when he reached eighteen, and then went on to kill eight more people. And Kemper had described how these murders occurred. He would pick up women hitchhiking. He would be killing a woman with a knife and talking to her, saying, “I hope this isn’t really unpleasant. I hope you’re not uncomfortable. I hope this is not too frightening.”
So, the psychiatrist—I’ll make this as short as possible—the psychiatrist took the stand and said, “You know, this man is not even neurotic. Not only is he not psychotic, he’s not even neurotic, because he can’t empathize with the victim. He has a sociopathy or a psychopathy. He can be completely dispassionate while he is killing another person.” And I started to wonder—I still wonder about this stuff—I started to wonder how in god’s name does the psychiatrist know what Ed is thinking? Maybe Ed has this fantasy of being in control. Maybe in this writing after the fact he imagined himself as being dispassionate. Perhaps he was completely out of control, deeply psychotic. This kind of discrepancy between the accounts that we provide about ourselves and the world.
And I think it’s very much—in a different way—but it’s very much in your films as well, and something that deeply inspired me.
WH: There is something about Kemper and, of course, Ed Gein as well—we had a falling out over Ed Gein at the time, sometime later.
EM: Cannibals can turn friends into enemies. Go figure.
WH: But actually, yes, it was a deep concern and in a way it had to do with cinema, for you at that time were more into the direction of writing. But we had a very, very intense rapport over it. Errol had a problem with me when we tried to find out in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where Ed Gein—the very probably most notorious—
EM: The movie Psycho was based on Ed Gein. Robert Bloch, the writer of the novel Psycho, lived in a small Wisconsin town, Weyauwega, about twenty miles from Plainfield. Ed Gein was notorious. And the farmhouse where he lived alone became the ultimate house of horrors. He had upholstered furniture in his house with human flesh. He was a human taxidermist, cannibal, serial killer, grave robber, necrophile. An all-around good guy.
WH: Errol wanted to know more about the grave robberies, because Ed Gein had not only murdered people. He also excavated freshly buried corpses at the cemetery. And I do remember: he dug up graves in a pretty perfect circle. And in the very center of this circle was the grave of his mother. And Errol kept wondering, did he excavate his mother and use her flesh and skin for some sculptures in things at his home?
EM: A relatively innocuous question. [Laughter]
WH: So the only way to find out is, I proposed, let’s go to Plainfield, grab a shovel, and dig at night. And I showed up in Plainfield, Wisconsin, because I was doing some filming up in Alaska and I came in a car all the way from Alaska down to Plainfield to visit Errol—
EM: I was living with Ed Gein’s next-door neighbors at the time, who I had befriended. Beth and Carroll Gear.
WH: You didn’t show up.
EM: Oh, much later, yes. The chronology of all this is coming back to me.
WH: I was there, but you didn’t show up. And we had a date. It was something like September 10, and I said, I’m going to be there, and you will be there, and you didn’t show up.
EM: He’s unfortunately correct.
WH: And I would have dug, even though Errol wasn’t there. I was kind of scared because people open fire easily in this town.
EM: Well, wait a second. I had been living there. I had become friends with this very strange doctor, Dr. George Arndt. He had written one academic paper in his entire medical career, called “A Community’s Reaction to a Horrifying Event.” Essentially it was a compendium of Ed Gein jokes. I had befriended Dr. Arndt and together we drove to Plainfield Cemetery. He had a very, very big Cadillac.
It reminds me actually of that scene in your Antarctic movie. Dr. Arndt and I had put our ears to the ground in the vicinity of the Gein graves, looking for hollow areas in the earth.
WH: I had forgotten about it completely. So things come back thirty-five years later.
EM: And Dr. Arndt, who was really quite mad—I should tell you at least one of the Ed Gein jokes. Do you remember any of them?
WH: I don’t think so.
EM: Why did Ed Gein keep his chairs covered overnight?
WH: I don’t know.
EM: To keep them from getting goose pimples. So I was there with George Arndt in the cemetery and Arndt had this theory that Ed was so devious that he wouldn’t have gone down directly into his mother’s grave. I had discovered that many of the graves that he had robbed made a circle around his mother’s grave. And Dr. Arndt took this new information and came up with the hypothesis that Gein went down into one of the side graves—he only robbed the graves of women who were middle-aged and overweight, like his mom. He went into one of those graves and then tunneled, that there would be this radial tunnel toward the center, toward his mother’s grave.
Arndt’s theory was that Gein would never have gone directly down into his mother’s grave. Psychiatrists have amazing theories. But he would never go down into the grave. As Arndt put it: Gein was too indirect, too devious. Hence, his radial digging, this tunneling. And I wondered, Wait a second—is she really down there?
I could never get an answer. I could never get a straight answer from anyone. Is Mrs. Gein still buried in Plainfield Cemetery? And I told the story—this was the big mistake here—I told the story to Werner.
WH: And I showed up in Plainfield.
EM: And so there was this horrible realization: he’s actually going to do it. And I have to say, I did get scared. I had this picture—you know, I was always really—I probably still am—trying to please my mother. I had already been thrown out of these various graduate schools. I was a ne’er-do-well, and down for the count, and I saw my life flashing before my eyes. I saw myself arrested with the Germans. I saw this full moon. I saw the Plainfield police. I saw the police photographers. I saw myself being led away with the Germans in handcuffs, the complete disgrace.
So this is an opportunity to apologize. I apologize for not showing up.
WH: I have to apologize for something else, because my car had broken down and there was no mechanic in the mile out there. There was a wreckage yard, and I fell in love with the guy who fixed my car.
EM: Clayton Schlapinski.
WH: Yes, Clayton Schlapinski. And I said that we were going to do a film there in Plainfield, and that really upset Errol a lot. He thought I was a thief without loot. This was his country, his territory, his Plainfield, and I shot in Plainfield. I shot a film, Stroszek, which I think is forgotten and forgiven by now, and we can maintain friendship over this now.
EM: I told Werner: For you to steal a character or a story isn’t real theft. But to steal a landscape, that is a very, very serious crime.
WH: I understand that. I take it to heart, but there actually is a film out there, and we can’t take it off the map.
EM: It’s a very good film.
WH: It has a beautiful end with a dancing chicken, and I really like it.
WH: But what might be interesting is what somehow creates movies. What sort of odd fascinations, and they return in a very different form somewhere. And even I forgot about putting the head to the ground and banging the ground and listening whether there was anything hollow. And all of a sudden in the film that I just finished and showed yesterday, something similar like that in staged form appears.
EM: And it’s a wonderful scene.