Noted German Film Maker Herzong on Ancient and Modern Greece


NEW YORK – In great cities like New York, everything comes together. On June 16 the television program LIVE From The New York Public Library (NYPL) and the Onassis Cultural Center presented renowned German author and film maker Werner Herzog in conversation with LIVE’s host Paul Holdengraber. Their fascinating discussion ranged from ancient Greece’s literature and monuments…to the crisis that was being trumpeted in that very day’s headlines.

At the heart of the conversation was Holger’s relationship with his grandfather, an archaeologist most noted for his discovery of the remains of the Asklepion on Kos.

Although it had sadly faded by the time they met, he praised his grandfather’s keen intelligence and remarkable intuition.

“He could read and understand patterns in landscapes…he looked at the top of a hill where nobody else thought the Asklepion would be… he looked around and thought ‘this is where I would put it,’” and he found it.

The audience picked up that genes and spirit flowed from grandfather to grandson.

The invitation to the event said of Herzog that he “quickly gained notoriety not only for creating some of the most fantastic narratives in the history of the medium, but for pushing himself and his crew to new and unprecedented lengths, again and again, in order to achieve the effects he demanded.”

Crews, in film or archaeology, don’t follow people “again and again” if they don’t have vision.

Holdengraber is “known for encouraging his guests to step outside their areas of specialization and into wider reaching discussions.” They can be long too, but the audience does not want them to end, curious what else the intellectual archaeologist might dig up.

The well-presented program included fascinating and helpful photographs and clips from Herzog’s films, especially the short subject Last Words (1968).

Shot in Crete and the island of Spinalonga, it is about the last man to leave the island which had been used as a leper colony. He was forced to leave and went to Crete, but refuses to speak, not even a single word – as he repeatedly explains.

The audience saw a scene where he sings and plays the lyra at nights in a bar, prompting Herzog to say he believes that the roots of modern Greece’s folk musicians go all the way back to Homer. Listening to that man gave him a sense of what it was like to hear the Odyssey and the Iliad 2700 years ago – “It’s a long, deep cultural echo.”

These are among the things he explored on his own.

“I hated school. I am very much self-taught,” he said. “I never trusted teachers – I just started to read.”

Including the Iliad, which he could read in Greek (he also studied Latin). He became intrigued with the sounds of the first line, especially the word ο?λομένην – referring to the wrath of Achilles.

It is clear storytelling is his essence. He spoke of the live Heinrich Schleimann, the archaeologist who discovered Troy and who married a 16 year-old Greek girl, but only after he memorized and recited the Iliad in Homeric Greek.

Journeys are also of his essence – inner and outer.

He literally followed in his grandfather’s footsteps to make a film about his work on Kos, but his explorations of mind also impact his work.

“I am looking too much into the abyss but I don’t want to look into them too much…those who look too deeply go insane.”

“You thought you were going mad,” Holdengraber interjected. “Not going mad, I was mad…understanding what was going on became something which lingered in me and became central metaphor,” in some of his films.

“I looked into the abyss. I look enough into abysses in my films, but I don’t really want to look into that one.” There was an uncomfortable pause onstage that evoked laughter in the audience. “It’s not funny,” Herzog snapped – it was the one time he became agitated.

“My characters make a lot of sense, even the ones that are mad.”

He then urged young film makers to be careful in their choice of day jobs and to eschew the mundane. “Don’t work in an office. Become a bouncer in a sex club, although I could not do that.”

When Holdengraber asked “who would you like to be,” Herzog said he a character in Roman antiquity, like Fabius Maximus, who saved Rome but endured abuse from his fellow Romans, or one of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

“How incredibly vivid history is for you. You talk about this as though you had lived it,” Holdengraber said.

His admiration for Hellenism is palpable, and his sympathy for the people of Greece was clear when the current crisis came up.

He said the Greek’s are being asked for a humiliating surrender, reminding him of Athens’ treatment of the people of Milos during the Peloponnesian war.

“Tsipras and Varoufakis are using the same terminology as the Milesians: ‘they are humiliating us, they are like pirates.”

But when he was asked to explain the situation, some of his comments reflected the European media’s blunt take about how Greece fell into debt.

“They need very basic principles like book keeping,” which provoked laugher. When he continued by saying “they don’t even know how much they owe; the biggest hospital in Athens had no book keeping,” one angry guest hurled back a barnyard epithet.

Holger, somewhat taken aback, said he was happy to discuss the matter further after the show. He later declared that Greece should receive massive debt relief and the chance to make a new start, citing the debt relief Germany received in 1953.

He concluded with some disturbing cultural observations. “Young people don’t read any more. They don’t read coherent stories and have no sense of conceptualizing…They spend their time on Facebook and twitter,” he said.

But he also allocates blame to higher levels. “Universities are making disastrous mistakes by abandoning their classics departments,” to save money, and he is angered when he hears the study of ancient literature has no practical value, like physics and engineering.”

“We are robbing ourselves of our deeper understanding of who we are and where we are heading,” he said.


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