(Credit: Raffi Asdourian)

Werner Herzog picks out five books every filmmaker should read

“Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker.” — Werner Herzog

An esteemed filmmaker, the German director Werner Herzog has never confined himself to one medium. To do so would have refused the world the chance to not only enjoy his films but also languish in the thick prose he has created throughout his life. As much an advocate for reading as he is completely infatuated with the art of cinema, Herzog once picked out several books that every aspiring filmmaker should read before they will truly see the fruits of their labour.

The conversation isn’t a new one for Herzog. As well as the quote above, Herzog has often noted that the only real way to achieve anything is to read as much a possible around the subject, whether it be stories that can inform or facts that inspire — picking up a book and giving one’s time and effort to complete it provides a practice for peak performance. A practice which, in Herzog’s mind, could help every aspiring filmmaker to reach their potential. While there are only a handful of titles to be shared during his conversation in 2014 with Eric Weinstein, Herzog is clear in his mantra: one must read forever.

“I would not want to give you two books because you would sit down and read them and think that you’ve done it,” Herzog replied when asked about the perfect literature for a filmmaker. “You should not read two books, but 2,000 books.” That’s because, for Herzog, it is not about the books read but the art of reading which is important. However, that didn’t stop the writer and director from picking out a few choice titles when speaking to Paul Holdengraber in 2016 for his podcast.

As Herzog offers Holdengraber some pro-bono advice from his Rogue Film School, noting he teaches his student sonly two things: “How to pick safety locks (and I’m done with that in 20 minutes), and how to forge documents, how to falsify, for example, a shooting permit. Very good to know how to do it if you’re in a country that has a military dictatorship and does not allow you to film.” The director also pulled out some classic titles as essential reading for filmmakers.

“Sometimes I talk about these books that have nothing to do with filmmaking,” Herzog noted, seemingly not deterred. “One of them is The Peregrine [By J.A. Baker]. We spoke once in public about it. About watching peregrines, but it’s a book that everyone who makes films should read. The kind of immersion into your subject and the passion and the calibre of prose—I mean, we haven’t seen anything like this since the short stories of [Joseph] Conrad.”

“It [also] includes, for example, Virgil’s Georgics, not Aeneid, but Georgics,” notes the German director, offering both poetry alongside prose. “Or a short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, And it includes Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s memoir about The Conquest of New Spain. He was a footman in the smaller army of Hernán Cortés.”

Jumping away from the dusky plains of poetic revelry, Herzog switches it back and focuses on a moment in US history that will never be forgotten, JFK’s assassination: “And the Warren Commission Report, for example. Just a wonderful piece of reading; the best crime story you can ever read and the phenomenal conclusiveness in its logic. So those are the things I care for aspiring filmmakers to read.”

As a bonus, Herzog also picked out two films that every filmmaker should revisit: “I’m now revisiting two of [Abbas Kiarostami’s] finest films. One is Where Is the House of My Friend? and Close-Up. That’s two films I’d like to spread and recommend like I do with The Peregrine. That’s filmmaking at its very very best and it’s like a man who carries 5,000 years of Persian high culture and poetry with him, and all of a sudden it appears in his films.”

There you have it, if you were looking to be a part of the Rogue Film School of Werner Herzog and were just hoping to find some extra reading material, we’ve got the list down below. If, however, you were hoping to be taught how to pick locks and forge documents, you’ll have to enroll in the real thing.

Werner Herzog’s books for filmmakers:

  • The Peregrine – J.A. Baker
  • Georgics – Virgil
  • The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber – Ernest Hemingway
  • The Conquest of New Spain – Bernal Díaz del Castillo
  • Warren Commission Report