Arts & Entertainment

Documentary: Truth in Nonfiction

Werner Herzog

Lesson time 15:22 min

Ditch the 'fly-on-the-wall' approach to documentary filmmaking. Shape the 'ecstatic truth' to tell a beautiful and brilliant story.

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Topics include: Shaping the escatic truth • Scripting moments • Illuminating your audience


For me, it's all just movies. And my documentaries are partly staged, or inventive, or poetical, and not so much fact-based, although the hard core of facts I always incorporate. So I think this distinction is a little bit too mechanical and too brainless. Many of my documentaries, in fact, are feature films in disguise. [MUSIC PLAYING] You shouldn't be too pedantic. I keep [? quoting, ?] for example, the Pieta-- the statue of Michelangelo in St. Peter's Church Cathedral. It's one of the most beautiful sculptures that was ever made. And when you look at the dead Jesus in the arms of Saint Mary, Jesus is 33 years old-- is a 33-years-old man. And when you look at the Virgin, at his mother, she is depicted as a 17-year-old virgin. So where are the facts? He just takes a liberty to shape it and form it himself. And Shakespeare, by the way, said once in one of his dramas, the most truthful poetry is the most feigning. So, if you read [? Terdelene-- ?] a great German poet, early 1800s, he actually became insane at the end of his life-- he writes about a storm in the mountains. And of course, it is not a weather report of 1802. It's a great poem. And what happens very often, what I hear very often is said, filmmakers believe that facts-- in particular, documentary filmmakers-- that facts constitute truth. They don't. They do not per se. Facts have enormous power. They have the power to create norms. If, let's say, a million or five million asylum seekers are streaming into Western Europe, it will create new norms of behavior. So that's a power of facts. But this doesn't, the fact per se doesn't illuminate you. It doesn't give you what I call an ecstasy-- something ecstatic, something that illuminates you. Otherwise it keeps quoting that quite often the phone directory of Manhattan would be the book of books. 4 million, 5 million entries, all factually correct. But it doesn't illuminate us. It doesn't tell us anything about every single person that's listed there. So I've always tried to postulate something that is much deeper-- and you can find it in cinema-- some moments where you depart from, let's say, historical facts, and you start to invent on your own. I have done it quite often, and I've gotten a lot of flak for that. But I maintain that this is something really important for filmmaking, and it should develop. We should divorce documentaries from journalism-- from mere investigative journalism. We are not flies on the wall. That's what you hear quite often, you should be like a fly off the wall. No, that's only the losers who do that. It's a camera that you find in the bank, and it watches the bank for 15 years, and not a single bank robber will ever show up. So those are the losers. You have to step out. You have to create. And only by imagining, and by creating, and by fantasizing, and brin...

About the Instructor

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.

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Werner Herzog

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

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