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Arts & Entertainment

Documentary: Eliciting Difficult Stories

Werner Herzog

Lesson time 14:29 min

Werner breaks down the need for narrative discipline and "knowing the heart of men." Learn how to get to the heart of your subject and shape your story.

Werner Herzog
Teaches Filmmaking
In 6 hours of video lessons, Werner Herzog teaches his uncompromising approach to documentary and feature filmmaking.


Emotional attachment, that's also a very tricky question. Emotional attachment with the subjects in your film. In some very deep moments, deeply emotional, deeply disturbing, I do not break down. I know I am a professional. I have to, if I start to cry now, I cannot function anymore. You cannot ask a question sobbing from behind the camera. So it's an enormous amount of discipline. And you better have to remain professional. We are professionals. And the involvement has to be only to a certain degree. A surgeon should not operate his own child. But sometimes, you get across a situation where there is somebody as if this was your own child, and you keep on filming. It is professional discipline. And of course, sometimes it has happened to me that I was, in fact, crying, tears coming down. But my voice still completely matter of fact and firm. I had quite a few moments in The White Diamond. Graham Dorrington who had built a new airship. And we were in Guyana. He needed for me, and I told him at the beginning, I have to hear from you with the story 10 years back, when your camera man, the only person who had manned the prototype perished in the most horrifying accident. You have to tell me. He said yes, I'll do it. And then during shooting, I said, tomorrow we have to do it. We are only four or five days left here, and the weather is good. And he would not do it. He would just refuse it. Say, no, no, it's too difficult, too heavy for me. And then next day, I said, we are going to do it. He couldn't do it. He was up all night pacing up and down in the jungle and talking to himself. And I said to him, Graham, I know we are not going to do it today. And I said, but you know what? Tomorrow we'll do it. And what is going to happen is this. There will be only the camera and only the sound and only me, no one else and my young 12-year-old son. Because it's a story that's not for me or for the cinematographer, it's a story for the kids. It's a story for those who will grow up. And they will carry your story to the children and to their grandchildren and great grandchildren. And he said, I think I have understood you. And I have this scene, I think, where Graham Dorrington finally tells the story. And it's very hard for him to tell it. 11 years ago, Goetz Dieter Plager died in Sumatra in an accident, in a project where I was working with him. We were using a one man airship, a small airship to film the forest canopy. I flew the airship first, a few times. And then he flew it. And it was going very well, the project. On the day of his accident, we woke up, and the atmosphere was very somber. I said to him, I don't need any tearful account of all this. Just tell me how you experienced it in all its harshness, in all its horror. We took off, he took off in the morning, a littl...

Capture the spectacular

When the legendary director Werner Herzog was 19, he stole a camera and made his first movie. 70 films and 50 awards later, Werner is teaching documentary and feature filmmaking. In this film class, you’ll learn storytelling, cinematography, location scouting, self-financing, documentary interview techniques, and how to bring your ideas to life. By the end, you’ll make uncompromising movies.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This is the best thing after the DSLR camera that has happened to the film industry.

Great thoughts and experience shared but with great common sence and deep knowledge about the art and craft

He is amazing with his heartfelt truths that he brings to his work. .. plus i loved him in JACK REACHER! a Classic

Werner has helped me become a greater screen poet. To reach for the stars and to struggle to dream. Fantastic class.


Eric G.

Reaching into the soul of a person...indeed, an attribute needed for effective interviews, as Werner calls them...a necessary aspect of good documentary work.

Richard J.

By looking at filmmaking through Herzog's eye, I am understanding more and more about the subject.


These are certainly very difficult subjects or encounters to share on a documentary film. Werner did his magic to communicate and discipline the idea through the shoot. Knowing the HEART of the subject and the people is essential.

Matthew U.

Very cool module and the excerpts from his film are chilling, but so impactful. What struck me while I was watching them was what extraordinary lives these people must be leading to be exposed to such harrowing situations, and that the cinematography is so basic. Both of these stories were shot so simply, yet the stories carry the interest. In this case the genius of the filmmaker is that he found these characters and that he was able to draw out their stories.

Ray U.

Interesting regarding Herzog on documentary interview techniques. The surgeon analogy and being clinical – I’m not sure I agree with this but I can see why Herzog says this. The conversation example Herzog elicits is amazing but also gruesome, hard to even listen to. I have reservations whether this is needed but would need to see the larger film. Herzog compares this to ancient Greek tragedy and redemption which perhaps is justification, hard to say. Herzog’s films are amazing and controversial this way. You have to know the heart of men if you do something like that - a high level of knowledge here indeed.


Incredible moments. Werner seeks these stories out and finds them! That's where I need to begin. I'll worry about crying later...

Gippsland G.

So simple so beautiful so effective. Almost a fail safe approach, but given the complexity of each and every human being, better to be open to the last and expect the unexpected, I suspect. Nikolai Blaskow

Drew V.

incredibly insightful lesson. getting people to talk about those deep dark stories isn't an easy thing for sure.

Jerry R.

I have interviewed a lot of people. You develop a lot of instincts. For the type of interviewing Herzog is doing, it would take a lot of inner strength to remain detached in a professional way, while connecting with the subject. His demanding retakes in some instances but doing it all in one setting is interesting.

Holly C.

I do a lot of interviews/conversations in my films. I learned a lot about not being afraid to ask the person to reframe the story until it is right.