Lifetime achievement award doesn't mean Herzog is finished

Despite winning a lifetime achievement award, veteran German director Werner Herzog says he has much left to do.

Werner Herzog at the Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai. Andrew H Walker / Getty Images for DIFF
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On the morning after the veteran German director Werner Herzog was presented with the Dubai International Film Festival's Lifetime Achievement Honour, something extraordinary happened.

Herzog finished an interview with an Arabic TV crew just as a young man wearing no shoes and socks strode across the carpeted gazebo on the rooftop of Al Qasr Hotel. His shoulders contracted, barefoot as a sign of respect, and his hands writhing together about his waist, the young man moved to hug the filmmaker, who accepted his embrace with characteristic Bavarian courtesy.

As tears streaked the young man's face, Herzog asked politely: "Are you an actor?" He wasn't. Wissam Khan works in public relations. He'd been introduced to Herzog's films as a youth in Mumbai by a vagrant artist in his local neighbourhood.

He asked the director to sign a poster of Klaus Kinski, the late actor notorious for his chaotic temperament and sequence of collaborations with Herzog. "Kinski would have loved you," Herzog said, steadying the man's shoulders. "He created his art for people with your enthusiasm."

Afterwards, Khan explained what captivates him about the director's style of filmmaking.

"Herzog's films are not just stories, they speak of universal truths."

Indeed, Herzog describes his approach to filmmaking, over a career spanning 18 feature films and 25 feature-length documentaries, as the search for an "ecstatic truth" - art that blurs the line between reality and fiction to encapsulate an altogether deeper, more poetic sense of truth.

Rather than simulate a steamboat being dragged over a hill in the Amazon for Fitzcarraldo (1982), for instance, the director enlisted hundreds of locals to enact this seemingly impossible feat. To create the unsettling atmosphere of Heart of Glass in 1976, he had all of the actors hypnotised during filming. Nothing is scripted in his documentaries, or restrained in his features. Dialogue evolves so that a significant amount of what's captured on film is left to the mercy of chance.

Into the Abyss is his latest documentary, screened on the closing night of the festival, and takes just such a plunge. It follows two men convicted of a senseless crime in Texas: murdering three people over a car that would be in their possession for less than 72 hours.

Jason Burkett got a life sentence, Michael Perry got the death penalty. From this, Herzog shows the ripple effect of state-sponsored killing. He makes it clear at the start that he opposes this method of punishment, but otherwise remains quiet on what happens over the course of the film - instead he lends an ear and sombre silence to Perry, who knows that he will die eight days after their short conversation.

"It's strange when I first came up with the title, it dawned on me that it could be the title of a number of films that I've made," says Herzog. "It only shows that I'm trying to look deep inside the human soul.

"Yes, I've done films in Antarctica, the Amazon and Australia, but that's a horizontal, spreading curiosity. For many of my films you have to look at the vertical: it's a pure form of plunging."

In 2011 alone he has made six films, following last year's successful Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his first film in 3D, that brought audiences face-to-face with the earliest-known cave paintings and was screened in October at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. He flew into Dubai from Pittsburgh after stepping in front of the camera to portray a villain alongside Tom Cruise - also in the emirate for the festival - in One Shot, due out in 2013.

"Unfortunately Tom Cruise gets to kill me in the end," says Herzog. "It's the fact of being the bad guy."

He’s currently trying to secure final funding for a feature film about the life of archaeologist Gertrude Bell, often incorrectly referred to as the ‘female Lawrence of Arabia,’ who Herzog describes as, “Somebody who really knew the dignity of the Bedouins and beauty of life under Islam.  “I’m trying to step beyond the perspective of Lawrence of Arabia, a movie that takes a very paternalistic view of the region. I urge you, watch Lawrence of Arabia today - it’s appalling. It has aged like no other film I know.”

The film will focus on Bell's two ill-fated loves, and there are plans to shoot in Jordan and in Damascus once the current situation in Syria improves.

But prior to receiving his lifetime achievement award, Herzog spent some time exploring Dubai.

"This city is like the invention of a poet," he says. "It reminds me of Peter the Great who built St Petersburg in only 10 or 15 years, pushing Russia into the western world to becoming a modern nation. I can only salute the Sheikh who runs this country as a fellow poet."

He also urged young filmmakers of the region to concentrate on filmmaking, not funding. Every year, he runs a four-day programme in the US called the Rogue Film School, in which he teaches aspiring directors the skills of self-reliance.

"Don't wait for the system to finance your films, roll up your sleeves and work. During the last two years in high school, I worked the night shift as a welder to make enough money for my first film. Don't waste your life in waiting for others to decide your fate." His own career, lifetime achievement award or not, is far from over.

"It's a great honour and sums up a life in filmmaking, but I don't think that I'm done yet," he says, with grinning mischief. "Take that as a warning, and as a threat!"