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CANNES 2019 Special Screenings

Werner Herzog • Director of Family Romance LLC

“I wanted to go back to the time of Aguirre, the Wrath of God

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- CANNES 2019: We met up with German uber-director Werner Herzog to discuss his venture into Japanese alternative reality in Family Romance LLC

Werner Herzog  • Director of Family Romance LLC

Shown at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Special Screenings, Family Romance LLC sees Werner Herzog heading off to Japan to explore a company specialising in renting out actors to satisfy people’s different emotional needs: be it by pretending to be somebody’s absentee father or a railway station employee scorned for causing havoc after a train departs at the wrong time.

Cineuropa: Your film made me think of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Do you think we are getting to the point where we should start questioning our reality?
Werner Herzog:
 That’s one of the best titles ever. I have never read it, but I know the content very well because it was referenced in my film Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. If you are a filmmaker and you don’t read, you won’t get anywhere. Although this time, there was no time – I was just trying to understand the subway pattern of Tokyo.

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Yes, we don’t have a clear notion any more of what is real and what’s not, what is a lie and what is fake news. All of these questions have become very intensified: we know this is coming, and everyone who is on Facebook, for example, knows it’s stylised self-representation. Everything is fabricated, but the emotions are true and the hatred genuine, driving school children to suicide. When you look me up online, there are at least 30 fake Werner Herzogs. It’s all forgery, but you can’t stop it, so I keep saying these are my unpaid bodyguards. I am not online much, but I do watch crazy cat videos sometimes. It cheers me up instantly.

Some of the services provided here are truly peculiar – like the one allowing you to experience death without, well, actually being dead.
That one was my own invention, but in Tokyo, there seems to be a crazy trend among younger people who want to experience death in a funeral parlour. So it’s not really that far-fetched. There are some things that are strange for us, like the whole part about a train conductor releasing a train 20 seconds early, with some children already inside and their parents still on the platform. I heard that a year ago, this company needed to publish full-page apologies in the papers because of that, so I developed a story where my leading character [Yuichi Ishii] takes the blame for it, even though the real culprit is standing next to him. He is paid for taking the insult.

With that scene alone, it’s already hard to distinguish truth from fiction.
It’s a fiction feature, so every line of dialogue and every scene is scripted. It doesn’t have any irony in it – it’s a reality that happens only in fiction films, if you can speak of any reality at all. When you look at cinema today, you have some basic formulas. Nothing is completely new: you always have a scene where somebody drives a car or has a discussion at the dinner table. Even in fantasy films, you half expect a dragon to come flying by. But I am confident that in Family Romance LLC, there is nothing you have already seen.

Would you say it brought you closer to understanding Japan and the way people deal with intimacy there?
For westerners like us, there is always this mystery surrounding Japan. But the fact that I don’t understand everything is of no consequence. Last night, a Japanese viewer came over to shake my hand. I asked: “Is it all wrong?” He said: “No, this is us.” I am not worried that I am off-target. I didn’t spend a lot of time there: I was filming on my way back from China for six days, then I came back and shot for another eight. The entire footage was a little over 300 minutes long – minutes, not hours. I just had to do it, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me, personally. Fitzcarraldo had to do with me personally, but I am not planning to build another opera house in the jungle. 

But you have already mentioned that this film was a return to your roots in some way?
I was tired of insurance companies telling me where I could shoot. I wanted to go back to the time of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, to go back to a simpler kind of filmmaking. On Aguirre, I needed some people because I was constantly on the move with all these Spanish conquistadors, but here there was almost no crew. Even when a film is well prepared, I like to leave the door open for something insane or incredible to invade it, like in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, where there are these iguanas that only he can see. It’s like a conspiracy between him and the viewers. On Aguirre, we lived on rafts, and you never knew what would be coming after the next bend in the river. It could be a waterfall or a village hostile to what you were doing. I like this basic attitude in returning to the great joy of filmmaking.

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