Brietta Hague becomes a ‘soldier of cinema’ with Werner Herzog

Herzog and Aussie filmmaker Brietta Hague.

One of four recipients of the inaugural Metro Screen Fellowship, administered by the ADG, Brietta Hague travelled to Cuba in March to attend a two-week workshop with German director Werner Herzog. 

I’m standing outside a decrepit textile factory in Cuba with Werner Herzog as young boys zoom around our legs on creaking, homemade Go-carts.

"And now you must make a scene… now you must make these carts crash!" Herzog orders in fluent Spanish.

The children have no idea who he is but something about his tone makes them obey. They ready their carts and charge headlong into each other. Herzog smiles in satisfaction.

"As a boy I made toys like this," he tells me, remembering a childhood without shoes in rural Bavaria after World War Two. The 74-year-old seems supremely comfortable in the streets of rural Cuba.

I’m here with a group of emerging filmmakers from all over the world. We’ve been chosen by Black Factory Cinema, a Spanish company that organises alternative film studies. The aim is for each of us to produce, direct and shoot a five-minute film under the guidance of one of the world’s most radical directors.

But Werner Herzog tells us not to call him ‘professor’. He hates film schools and the process of spending years in institutions divorced from the real world. We are to call him ‘Mi Coronel’ (‘My Colonel’) as we are here to become his ‘soldiers of cinema’.

"Don’t wait for people to give you money," he says. "Get a job and save $10,000 and use that to make a film. Walk across your own country for as long as you can afford to. Work in a factory. Experience other ways of living."

Despite Herzog’s disdain for school, our workshop is hosted by the International School of Film and TV, Cuba’s most prestigious film school, opened by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1986. 

Like all institutes in socialist Cuba, it doesn’t have the modernity and gloss of a contemporary film school but it has an energy that is unmatched. A bar selling cheap beer and Cuba ‘Libres’ (rum and cokes) keeps us sufficiently lubricated, and simple meals of rice and beans – and sometimes chicken – provide fuel for the shoots.

From day one we are ordered to show up to ‘class’ with cameras and kit. Werner wants us working as soon as possible. He leads us through the process of location scouting, directing actors and non-actors, composition and interviewing subjects, although he doesn’t like the term ‘interview’. He abhors language that invokes journalism. He is completely dedicated to the process of the workshop, visiting students on set with suggestions and encouragement. 

We scatter across the nearby towns and countryside to discover our films. We find farmers, ex-prisoners, barbers, identical twins, refugees, vagabonds, singers, storytellers, love-struck teenagers, faux-American rappers, heart-broken grandmothers, priests and spiritualists. As a film set, Cuba is pure cinema. It’s inspiring, energising and tough. Even the simplest tasks like organising a taxi or making a phone call are ordeals. 

Herzog with students in Cuba (photo credit: Marcela Lizcano).

But Werner has no time for what he calls ‘the culture of complaint’. Filmmakers will always face limitations, he reminds us continually, be it resources, money or time. It makes no sense to complain in a country that makes do with so little. Despite moments of frustration and despair, the Cuban spirit of survival and ingenuity finds its way into all our films. 

In the evenings, we gather in a small shack to drink even more rum and listen to Werner’s stories – of which there are many – from his days as a bull-rider in Mexico, to Klaus Kinski’s ill-fated directorial debut featuring violins and mass nudity. 

During the final days of the workshop we each have editing sessions with Werner. I show him an hour’s footage of a local horseman, nervous I should have filmed more. He tells me not to shoot another frame. Filming is not about coverage, he says, but about finding poetry and truth. And don’t worry about a jump cut.

After days of talking, running, recording, shooting, whinging and drinking, we gather in the school’s auditorium to watch each other’s films. The realisation of why we came to Cuba unravels like magic on the big screen. We surprise each other by what we’ve produced with so few resources in such little time. Lifelong friendships and collaborations have been forged. As Werner says, "You must gang-up and work together. Or you can do it alone. In the end you’re always alone."

There are many ways I could describe Werner Herzog. He’s a brilliant filmmaker who genuinely cared about sharing his wisdom with us. He’s extremely funny and surprisingly kind. His criticisms were often blunt but always thoughtful. He’s the most courageous and original artist I’ve met. He would also find this description corny and sentimental, just as he admonished me for smiling when he took an obligatory selfie with each of us.

"You must stand and declare yourself here to make films. And you must find a way to get to the heart of man," he tells us at our final lesson. 

The simplicity of Werner Herzog’s advice can be deceptive. Life is hard, complaining about it is easy. We all have a thousand responsibilities and a thousand ways to avoid the truth. But if you truly love making films, you’ll find a way to make them; even if they’re small and humble and made in your own backyard.  

Our last night ends with moijitos and suckling pig done ‘Cuban style’; roasted for hours until mouth-wateringly juicy.

"Cut the pig! Cut the pig!" we chant, delirious from the smell of crackling pork after weeks of rice and beans.

Werner promptly cuts us off – "Anyone can chant a stupid slogan. But who can use a knife?!"

Werner Herzog’s Guide to being a soldier of cinema:

Read more books than you watch films. 

Instead of going to film school, go live life. 

Learn to use your instinct to get to the heart of a person. Do this before buying the best camera gear. 

Learn to forge documents and pick locks.