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(Credit: Raffi Asdourian)

Exploring Werner Herzog's obsession with chickens

Werner Herzog is rightly considered one of the essential filmmakers of all time. An auteur in every sense of the word and a leading figure in the New German Cinema movement, Herzog has provided us with more than sixty feature length-films and documentaries that he has either produced, written or directed.

He has produced films such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzeck (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987), and also more recently, Herzog played the role of the mysterious ‘Client’ in the first season of Disney’s Star Wars spin-off, The Mandalorian.

Conceptually, Herzog’s films often feature ambitious protagonists with impossible or unreachable dreams, people with unique talents in the leftfield or individuals who are in conflict with nature. His tempestuous relationship with Klaus Kinski, with whom we worked five times including Aguirre, was the subject of Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend.

The well-respected director made an admission in a 2012 video that startled us all, he revealed his fascination with chickens. “The enormity of their flat brain. The enormity of their stupidity is just overwhelming,” he said, before adding: “When you are out in the countryside and you see a chicken, try to look a chicken in the eye with great intensity and the intensity of stupidity that is looking back at you is amazing.”

Subsequently, in a 2014 Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA), Herzog’s preoccupation with poultry was brought to the fore by a user. The session was held in conjunction with other filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer and Errol Morris, with whom Herzog had just made the documentary The Act of Killing, about the 1965-66 Indonesian mass killings. 

In this AMA, Herzog expanded on his 2012 thoughts in a less humorous fashion. He detailed the dark depths of a chicken’s intellect: “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.” 

Herzog then followed this up with a proverb, the provenance of which is unclear: “With a chicken leg on your plant, a good stein of beer in your fist, the world starts to look better,” he wrote. To Herzog diehards, his obsession with the chicken comes as no surprise.

In the final scene of his surreal 1977 film Stroszek, the dim-witted protagonist inserts coins into an arcade at an empty amusement park. However, the attraction is a hypnotised chicken dancing and another playing the piano by bashing its beak into the ivory. 

The film is one of Herzog’s favourites, and retrospectively he views the scene as one of his best. He calls the use of the chicken a “great metaphor”. The scene’s ambiguity makes his intentions unclear, but esteemed film critic Roger Ebert posited that the chicken represents society, dancing for an unknown power until the money runs out.

Side note: Watching Stroszek was one of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis‘ last actions before his suicide in 1980. Subsequently, the chicken scene has been used in 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Control (2007) during the scenes that show the iconic frontman’s last moments.

In the AMA, Herzog added a more tangible but bleaker insight into the nature of the chicken: “I would note: chickens are living manifestations of death, bred only to be domesticated and killed. When we look into their eyes, we see the part of ourselves of which we are most afraid – our ultimate destination, death.”

Regardless, when asked if he plainly hates chickens in the AMA, Herzog replied: “Not in all forms… I like them Kentucky Fried.” This is a confounding statement from the mouth of the man who remarked, “By the way, it’s very easy to hypnotise a chicken. They are very prone to hypnosis”.

In addition to admitting he likes a spot of Colonel Sanders’ food, who’d have thought the leading light of New German Cinema would also be the central antagonist of the global chicken population?

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