Happy Birthday to Werner Herzog: the legendary German director thinks chickens are stupid

By on September 5, 2015

Today is the legendary film director Werner Herzog’s birthday — he was born Werner Herzog Stipetić on September 5, 1942, in Munich, Germany — and so we have this clip to share with you, in his honor, in which the director (also producer, screenwriter, author, actor and opera director) explains that he thinks chickens are stupid (parrots appear to be okay, though).

This short interview clip was directed by Siri Bunford, and lensed by DP Tom Streithorst: In 2004, director Sir Bunford has directed at least one KFC commercial that we know of, and he has directed and edited Tales From Home, a short three-part UK TV documentary that sets out to challenge preconceptions about asylum seekers and refugees. Streithort was one of two cinematographers on the project. He also worked on Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler (2004), and Hendrix: Band of Gypsys (1999).

Herzog: “The enormity of their flat brain, the enormity of their stupidity, is just overwhelming. You have to do yourself a favor when you’re 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 just amazing. By the way, it’s very easy to hypnotize a chicken; they are very prone to hypnosis, and in one or two films I have actually shown that.”

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Herzog does in fact hypnotize chickens in many of his films: in 1968’s Signs of Life, his first feature, there’s a scene in which a chicken is hypnotized by a line drawn with a piece of chalk, and also, in 1974’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (aka Every Man for Himself and God Against All, where German filmmaker and painter Herbert Achternbusch plays the Bavarian Chicken Hypnotizer.

Chickens also make memorable cameos in Stroszek (a dancing chicken in an arcade novelty bears witness to the final carnage) and especially Even Dwarfs Started Small, where they peck out one another’s eyes, about with trophy mice in their beaks and use the cover of social chaos to cannibalize their fallen comrades.

Not to mention the Herzog making-of filmic memoir by screenwriter-photographer-documentarian Alan Greenberg, curioulsy titled Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass, which features something clutched by the village idiot in a crowded pub, but that may actually be a duck.

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In this interview with Herzog, he says the crew members hated the dancing chicken so much they refused to participate, and he shot the footage himself.

“The technical crew or almost everyone on location hated the film so much that ultimately the cinematographer refused to shoot it (the shot) and said: ‘We are going for lunch now if you want to film that shit.’ And I said: ‘I’m gonna film that shit, sure.’ And I tried to tell them. ‘Don’t you see there’s something very very big here?’ And nobody saw it. It was really big. And it’s still one of the best things I ever filmed in my life.”

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Herzog also says: The problem was that the chickens wouldn’t dance for more than 15 seconds and then they would retreat. We had them in special training for dancing as long as they could. When you fed a quarter into the machine, the music would play and the chicken would dance. And as a reward it would get some corn. They were accustomed to dancing for 3 to 5 seconds. Now I held them in training for a couple of months to dance as long as they could. But they would only dance for 15 seconds. The problem is, I couldn’t get away with an ending that was a 15 second shot. I had quite a few of those shots and I had to add them together. There was always a jump cut. So there were technical reasons behind it as well. Very often it’s not an ideology or so that’s behind something.

The chicken is a “great metaphor,” Herzog says on the Stroszek DVD’s commentary track — for what, he’s not sure.

French filmmaker François Truffaut once called Herzog “the most important film director alive.” American film critic Roger Ebert said that Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular.”

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“Get used to the bear behind you.”

On the back cover dust jacket of the recently-published book Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Paul Cronin, are 24 maxims by the German director, simple rules that Herzog has listed which will prepare you for any and every situation — some apply to filmmaking, others apply to life, and all of them are worth your time.

1. Always take the initiative.
2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.
3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.
4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.
8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.
9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.
10. Thwart institutional cowardice.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
12. Take your fate into your own hands.
13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.
14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.
15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.
19. Day one is the point of no return.
20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.
21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.
22. Guerrilla tactics are best.
23. Take revenge if need be.
24. Get used to the bear behind you.

(h/t Indiewire)

Night Flight loves the work of Werner Herzog, and we plan to have many more posts about him in the future (we recently posted this fun parody clip, you should check out if you haven’t seen it yet).

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.