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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.

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


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...

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.

Its shown me what to look for in a scene and how to grab an audience and tips on how to do things. He taught to care about all the people i work with.

Very instructive Werner, thank you for the inspiration!

Groundbreaking. A bit too authoritarian on his advices sometimes.

The class forced me to look deep into my thoughts and put out of it the nuggets of gold for how to approach directing.


A fellow student

"Happy New Year!" that had me laughing out loud! Way to address the haters! Most filmmakers take themselves far, far, far too serious, and are too full of themselves and elitist about their process! As Werner said, "They're all just movies to me."

Eric G.

Only truth and reality in documentaries? Can truth be ecstatically shaped and remain real, or must it be absolutely defined? Is it not then a docudrama? If so, how then are the liberties of storytelling defined, does not science become fiction in films or is it merely bent inside the reality of science-fiction to become a story with entertainment value versus a classroom lecture dialog on facts of academic intention. These are the questions film makers must ask themselves when approaching their own creativity in the face of having a profitable project. Is it not what film making legends like Kubrick and modern day masters like Noland have done? Are the genre boundaries absolutely defined, or are the simply stated but never to be crossed, even slightly. A film from the "fly on the wall's" perspective would generally require an incredibly compelling subject composition to retain the paying viewer's attention for 120 minutes, or even 90. I think a philosophical documentary, as Werner has described himself doing, is a compelling piece of creativity which draws the audience into the story, allowing them to see and experience more than a majestic waterfall viewed through a drop of glycerine. Great documentaries are meant to be watched and enjoyed as entertainment, not clinically defined as absolute truth absolutely in telling the story. Those films are screened only in lecture halls. Great lesson.


Anything fabricated or fictitious is not, by definition, a documentary; it is just a movie like other movies. I have enjoyed Herzog's films, but I'm left feeling betrayed and disappointed by the guise of the pseudo-documentary, just like I was after reading counterpoints to some of Michael Moore's work. I'm still searching for docs that present the truth from both/all sides, so I can draw my own conclusions.

Oli L.

I want to direct anyone reading this to read Michael Kaiser's comment below: it's deeply illuminating and ultimately highlights not the problem with Herzog's filmmaking (which I'll admit to being uncomfortable with given some of the examples here) but with our common understanding of "documentary", which I think is very much what he describes as being a "fly on the wall" even if that's a touch confusing given it's a genre of doc on its own. The point is, we expect "documentary" films to be purely factual even if/when we're not presented with all the facts (watch any food-related doco to get my point!), whereas Herzog is clearly interested only in the Deeper Truth that lies beneath the facts of a story.


So this is where CCN [and sometimes FOX] get their inspiration for news reporting. It all makes sense now.

Rob D.

This lesson reminds me of the famous quote by Michelangelo "Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and by the way I don't trust a single bloody word that comes from Werner Herzog's duplicitous mouth". Timeless.

Tobias M.

There are poets and there are journalists. Journalists look with pseudo-objective eyes, edit for release, powered by values of fact and verisimilitude and the legitimacy of institutions. Poets explore truths, inject themselves directly into it, risk the death of the surface reality for the sake of what lies beneath. There are different forms of documentary: the poetic is Herzog’s domain.

Michael K.

Now after getting rid of the losers - all the "brainless" and "pedantic" Pulitzer-journalists - let´s get to the essentials of Werner Herzog: To understand the essence of Herzog´s work we have to go to his German roots. There is a great influence of the German Romantics on him which differs very strongly from all American culture: the literature of Hölderlin, Tieck, Heinrich Heine, Joseph von Eichendorff or E.T.A. Hoffmann - the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich - music of Schumann, Wagner or Carl Maria von Weber - the philosophy of Fichte and Schelling - or even the silent movies of the naturalistic expressionism of Friedrich Wilmhelm Murnau... In this context you have to see Herzogs understanding of truth and his aversion against fact-collectors in journalism or the Cinema Verité! Remember his "Minnesota Declaration" on truth and fact in documentary cinema. The original text you find under: In german language a distinction is made between the words "Wahrheit" and "Wahrhaftigkeit" which in English both means "truth". Based on the understanding and philosophy of German romanticism the term "Wahrhaftigkeit" means a deeper truth behind the things, a poetical, ecstatic truth - not just simple facts! The main intention of Herzog´s filmwork is the recovery of this "Wahrhaftigkeit", the recovery of spirituality and the dignity of man an nature. - Therefor in his films he stages reality and creates landscapes which are not superficial landscapes but inner landscapes wich reflect a special state of the human soul. To reach this uppermost aim Herzog holds the theory that it is allowed (as seen in the examples before) to fake a Pascal quotation, to replace water with glycerin, to steal his first camera or to lay some drunken boozers on the ice of a holy lake instead of praying pilgrims! That`s the cinema of Werner Herzog! - He stages reality like an opera director with the intention of discovering a deeper truth ("Wahrhaftigkeit") below the surface of this world!


How can we believe anything Herzog has to say when he tells us to lie in order to make a point!

Chad E.

So then we are more than just bank-robbers getting away with the loot... There's a bit of counterfeiting going on as well. Imagination and invention used as tools to create meaningful moments may be necessary, as long as it is understood and not presented as fact. Illumination of a certain truth can easily become propaganda. This is an excellent example of Storytelling and also a reminder of it's power.