This column started when I was perusing the excellent stock of books at Lion’s Tooth. A graphic novel, Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? jumped out at me. The book is written by Harld Schechter and illustrated by Eric Powell (The Goon). Hellllll yeah, SOLD. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with the Gein case, which took place in my home state of Wisconsin, and I love Powell’s art. Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? is highly recommended by me, it’s a great combination of researched work mixed with some scenes that speculate what life was like in the Gein household with Gein’s overbearing religious mother, Augusta who saw nothing but sin and corruption in everyone and around every corner.
The whole graphic novel is interesting, but I sure did laugh out loud toward the end of the book when the author’s described Gein’s legacy on pop culture. Among the stories, they describe how the man, the myth, the German film director (and Mandolorian actor) Werner Herzog almost dug up the corpse of Ed Gein’s mother. That is just SO HERZOG.
Herzog, apparently, along with his documentary filmmaking friend Errol Morris, were quite fascinated with the Gein case. One enduring mystery in the Gein story is whether or not he robbed the grave of his own mother. It certainely seems possible, but her grave was never exhumed to find out. Herzog wanted answers — and not by filing for an exhumation, but by doing it Gein-style with a shovel under the moonlight. In 1977 Herzog was in Plainfield to shoot scenes of his film Stroszek and he and Morris set a date for the dig. Morris dismissed the whole thing as a joke.
HERZOG AIN’T JOKING. He showed up at the Plainfield Cemetery and I love the image of Herzog standing alone with a shovel in the dark, swearing in German at Morris for being a no show. He didn’t attempt the dig.
At author Q and As people sometimes ask what writers have been influential on me. That’s a fair question, but I sometimes think about other influences on my work– music, art, and film have all informed my writing. One documentary that inspired my storytelling was Herzog’s Grizzly Man. His storytelling of a relatively unknown character (Timothy Treadwell) with a strange dream that led to his death was definitely in my mind while working on my book American Madness and the strange journey of Richard McCaslin.
Digging up Augusta Gein is just one in many crazy Werner Herzog stories. Here’s a few more of my favorites.
(1.) “Klaus was one of the greatest actors of the century, but he was also a monster and great pestilence”: Herzog Pulls a Gun on Klaus Kinski. Probably the most legendary story is Herzog’s love/hate collaborations with German method actor Klaus Kinski. Over the course of their work together, both Herzog and Kinski allegedly plotted to murder the other. Of the mood on set, Herzog says:
“My crew would almost mutiny when they heard that Klaus was on board. They would say, ‘How could you do this do us? We can’t take this man a minute longer’. I don’t like the term wild man, but Dennis Hopper was in the kindergarten compared with Klaus. I remember scenes where Klaus was attacked, and how the other actors used to take such pleasure in punching and kicking him. He was often quite badly hurt.”
Things reached a boiling point while working on Herzog and Kinski’s first collaboration, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). When Kinski threatened to walk off the set, Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on him and told him he would shoot him and then himself if he didn’t stay to finish production. Herzog says the story has been exaggerated into an urban myth, but after reading through the rest of this list…I dunno. Seems like it might be understated.
(2.) Herzog Saves Joaquin Phoenix from Dying in an Inferno. In 2006 Joaquin Phoenix was completely fucked up, speeding and weaving through traffic, when he hit an embankment, which shot his car into the air and flipped it upside down. Herzog witnessed the crash and approached the vehicle. He saw a man, hanging upside down, “deathly pale” and attempting to light a cigarette. Herzog recalled in a later interview:
“I recognized him; it was Joaquin — I said to him, ‘Man, relax.’ And he said, ‘I am relaxed.’ And I said, ‘Can I have your cigarette lighter?’ And he wouldn’t give it to me, so I distracted him, snatched it away, because there was gasoline dripping all over the car.”
Phoenix also confirmed the incident: “There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out.”
(3.) Per Agreement, Herzog Jumps into a Cactus Patch. Accidents typically followed Herzog on his productions. During the shoots for his 1970 film Even Dwarves Started Small, which starred an all-dwarf cast, one actor was hit by a car and another accidentally was lit on fire. Herzog made an appeal to the cast and crew– if they could get through the rest of the production without an accident, he would leap into a thorny cactus patch. After production wrapped without further incident, Herzog made good on his word and leapt onto a cactus, wedging spines into his knee sinew. In the video below, Herzog says the incident was just to give the cast “a little bit of fun.”
(4.) Herzog Gets Shot During an Interview. While doing an interview with the BBC in 2006 (to talk about Grizzly Man) on the streets of LA, Herzog was randomly shot in the abdomen by someone with an air rifle. Unfazed, Herzog moved the crew indoors, showed the wound off, then continued with the interview.
“It was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid,” Herzog explained. It was caught on camera:
(5.) Per Agreement, Herzog Eats a Shoe. Herzog is a man of his word. Herzog told filmmaker Errol Morris that is he finally finished the documentary he was always talking about, Gates of Heaven, he would eat his shoe. Morris finished the film, released in 1978, and Herzog ate the shoe live onstage, which was filmed and turned into the documentary short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (directed by Les Blank, 1980).
You can watch that doc here: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe – video Dailymotion
By the way, this is not a completist list. I didn’t even go into the craziness of filming Fitzcarraldo (1982). But I think this top 5 is a good start in exploring Herzog lore.
Please Clap Dept.: I wrote the “big story” or maybe “big fish story” is a better way to put it for the February Milwaukee Magazine. “Fishy Business” is about the February sturgeon spearfishing season on Lake Winnebago, and an investigation into the DNR illegally engaging in bartering sturgeon caviar. It’s on newsstands now, and I’ll share a link later in the month when it’s available online.
Tea’s Weird Week S4 Ep02, High on the Herzog: I read this column, weird news with me and co-host Heidi Erickson, trivia from Miss Information, and we close out with a track worthy of Herzog’s anarchy– “MAYHEM” by Mistaloo Meff.
My latest books are:
Brady Street Pharmacy: Stories and Sketches (2021, Vegetarian Alcoholic Press)
American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness (2020, Feral House)