This Thursday Werner Herzog goes to the Coolidge Corner Theatre to receive its Coolidge Award. The ceremony starts at 8 p.m. He joins a starry roster: Previous winners include Meryl Streep, Jonathan Demme, and Jane Fonda.
Herzog, 75, is truly a one-of-a-kind. He made his first film, a short, in 1962. In 2016, he released no fewer than three features. Two are documentaries: “Into the Inferno,” about volcanoes, and “Lo and Behold,” about the Internet. The other, “Salt and Fire,” a thriller, stars Michael Shannon and Gael García Bernal. “Inferno” screens Thursday afternoon at the Coolidge, followed by a question-and-answer session with Herzog. See accompanying list for Herzog screenings.
Along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Margarethe von Trotta, and Wim Wenders, Herzog belonged to what came to be known in the 1970s as the New German Cinema. Wenders will be at Harvard in April to deliver two Norton Lectures.
Born in Munich, Herzog is Bavarian, not Prussian. It’s an important distinction. He’s a child of German Romanticism, not German efficiency. He brings to his work an intense, almost-mystical attachment to nature and interest in extreme experience. Those qualities inform the five films in his now-legendary collaborations with Klaus Kinski. The Coolidge will screen three, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972), “Nosferatu the Vampyre” (1979), and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982). That’s the one in which a steamship gets lifted over an Amazonian mountain. Also screening will be Herzog’s documentary about Kinski, “My Best Fiend” (1999).
Herzog often appears in his documentaries, and his inimitable Teutonic tones — at once shapely and sinister — have helped make him a highly distinctive screen presence. He’s one of those rare directors who may be even more famous for who he is in front of the camera than for what he does behind it.
A week before the award ceremony, he spoke by telephone from his Los Angeles home.
Q. You’ve been doing some extensive traveling.
A. Yes, I was filming in Moscow with Mikhail Gorbachev. From there I went to Siberia, because the family of my wife still lives there. We had a big family reunion.
A. I’m doing a film about him, a documentary. I’ve had conversations on camera twice, already. Once in early October, then in December. It’s mostly about the time he was in power. It’s not about childhood and his years as a student and the years after he left power.
Q. You must be the only director who’s made films on all seven continents.
A. Yes, but you shouldn’t harp on that, because the biggest embarrassment would be if I ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s a statistical anomaly.
Q. Well, yes and no. It’s a statistic that speaks to the restlessness of your curiosity and the sense of wonder that informs all of your films.
A. A sense of awe, yes, a sense of curiosity. You shouldn’t be surprised if I showed up on one of the space stations. And I would love to show up on Mars, but only with a camera.
Q. How hard is it to maintain that quality of awe and curiosity?
A. It’s never left me. I’m still learning. I’m still curious. I spend little time with people my own age. Today the 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds discover my movies because I’m much better available on the Internet. You can find them. All of a sudden, almost all the mail I get comes from 15-, 16-year- olds. I do not find it surprising.
Q. How do you like living in Los Angeles? That’s not a place people would associate with you.
A. I live low key, so many don’t know. I never show up at red-carpet events or parties. But it’s the city with the most substance in the United States, arguably in the world. Don’t be misled by the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Everything that has had relevance and importance for the entire world within at least half a century now comes from California, and much of that from Los Angeles. I mean by that the Internet, the collective dreams in Hollywood, the acceptance of gays and lesbians as an integral part of a decent society, computers, Tesla cars! Even the rockets for SpaceX are being manufactured in Los Angeles. When you fly into Los Angeles you see from the plane the gigantic flat roofs of the production halls. So don’t underestimate Southern California.
Even the monumental stupidities of hippies and New Age pseudo-babble philosophy come from California. Aerobic studios and yoga and pumping iron and the enhancing surgery that women do. Video games. In-line skating. You just name it.
There are few things of global importance that do not come from California. For example, Muslim fundamentalism. But name me anything else that has been big that doesn’t come from here. I give you a month and a half to come up with something. If you succeed, I’ll send you a bottle of California red wine — which keeps winning the blind contests for the world’s best wines!
Q. You’ve always made both documentaries and fiction films. Does each have a different appeal to you or is it the same?
A. No, I don’t see such a clear distinction. I keep pointing out that many of my so-called documentaries are feature films in disguise. So the borderline doesn’t exist as clearly for me as it does for others. It’s all movies.
Q. At one point in your documentary “The White Diamond” (2004) you say, “In celluloid we trust.” That could be understood both figuratively, as a motto for someone who worships at the altar of cinema, and literally, as a comment on digital.
A. [Laughter] No, I never worshiped anything on any altar. And though film does have certain aesthetic qualities, I’m not nostalgic [for it] at all. Digital is so convenient and has reduced costs.
Q. One of the attractions of your documentaries for viewers is that you appear in them. You’ve also acted in other projects: a voice on “The Simpsons,” the villain in the first Tom Cruise “Jack Reacher” movie. Do you like being a performer?
A. Sure I do. When you look, for example, at “Jack Reacher” — how shall I say? — the essence of all this was that there has to be someone who speaks and with just his voice can spread horror. No, I’m good at that. I was paid handsomely, and I did my job really well. People in the audience get frightened when they see me. I got a lot of offers from agents to sign me as an actor.
Q. Were you tempted?
A. It depends. I do it infrequently. I have to have time for it [between directing his own films] and it has to be the right project. I enjoy and love everything that has to do with cinema — writing, directing, editing, creating music, acting — everything.
Q. So many of your films, both fiction and nonfiction, are about obsessives. Do you identify with them?
A. No, you have to be careful. It’s a very small minority of all my films. And in four or five, you find characters [imagine a shrug] — and they’re not really obsessive. I wouldn’t call it that way. The assumption is always lurking: Reviewers and audiences have a tendency to somehow put me on the same plane with the people I film. I would caution against drawing straight lines to my own self. I would encourage you to ask my wife, who would testify under oath that I am a very fluffy husband.
Q. If you hadn’t become a filmmaker, what would you have done?
A. It’s always hard to speak about this what-if, but maybe a mathematician. The very abstract things in number theory: That’s a fascination. I could have been an astronomer or archeologist. Perhaps also a good chef. In my adolescence, like all my buddies, I wanted to be an athlete. I probably would have been into sky jumping, sky flying.
Q. What do you think about getting the Coolidge Award?
A. I come with great pride, because the Coolidge Award has been handed out to very remarkable filmmakers and people connected to cinema. I have never been there but, of course, I know about the Coolidge. It’s one of those brave fortresses of cinema culture. I find it exceptional. When it was in trouble — 20 years ago? — I know that people formed a human chain around it. It was instantly clear, yes, that is my place.
Herzog screenings at the Coolidge
“Into the Inferno,” 2016 (Feb. 8, 1 p.m.). The inferno in question is volcanic, and in this documentary Herzog visits multiple continents to show volcanoes’ mystery, majesty, and menace.
“My Best Fiend,” 1999 (Feb. 10, 11:59 p.m.). Klaus Kinski was the midnight movie of film stars, and in this documentary Herzog pays loving, if wary, tribute.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” 2010 (Feb. 21, 7 p.m.). Herzog ventures into 3-D — and into Chauvet Cave, in southern France, with the oldest pictorial renderings by humans.
“Nosferatu the Vampyre,” 1979 (Feb. 24, 11:59 p.m.). Herzog remakes the horror classic. Kinski, Bruno Gans, and Isabelle Adjani star. Can you guess who plays the vampire?
“Grizzly Man,” 2005 (Feb. 27, 7 p.m.). This documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who got too close, fatally close, to the bears he was studying, may be Herzog at his most Herzogian.
“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” 2010 (Feb. 28, 7 p.m.). Codirected with Dmitry Vasyukov, this doc is a loving look at that least-loving of regions, Siberia.
“Fitzcarraldo,” 1982 (March 7, 7 p.m.). Herzog’s masterpiece — or greatest folly? Opera, primordial people, the Amazon jungle, and, of course, Kinski.
“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” 1972 (March 14, 7 p.m.). Herzog’s masterpiece — or greatest folly? Conquistadores, primordial people, the Amazon jungle, and, of course, Kinski.Interview was edited and condensed. Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.