An Analysis – Herzog’s Voice

I want to celebrate Werner Herzog’s voice, one of my favorite noises in cinema. I don’t speak metaphorically here: I don’t mean his cinematic “voice,” revealed through things like his shooting style, editing technique or any recurring themes. Instead, I’m more concerned with actual sound: his tone (almost always monotonous), an idiosyncratic lexis (“erotical,” for example) and his use of his voice in his films. I’m sure, though, that there’s only so much talking I can do: I’ll provide only a few words and, instead, let him speak for himself.

I am not alone in my admiration. In the video below, the elderly director chuckles as he recounts how people have come to imitate his speech. As he holds a copy of Curious George, he acknowledges the uniqueness of his voice, speaking about “my kind of talking.” As the text has already been read on the internet by one of his shadowy doppelgängers (his phrase, from Cave of Forgotten Dreams), it feels like a bit of a joke: he does not indulge us with his own reading of the slim volume. One YouTube user comments: “I realize that it is not at all what this is about , but I was hoping, no, PRAYING, that Herzog would start reading out loud from Curious George.”

The withholding of details (be it a personal reading not heard or a shot behind a holy waterfall left out of the edit) seems to be a technique Herzog often uses in his films. He invites us to piece together clues and come up with our own understanding of his pictures. It is apt, then, that one of those doppelgängers reads Where’s Waldo?: like Waldo, Herzog is happy leaving us to ask, about one aspect or another, “Is that a scroll? Or merely a rolled up towel?”

Yet, at other times, his narration is used as a structuring principle. In his documentaries, for example, his comments often explicitly guide the viewer towards one interpretation. I recently watched Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998): it is a staggering film, perhaps even life changing. Among other things, I was struck by the number of times a shot of Dieter explaining his ordeal in his own words was quieted down and overlaid by the director’s summary.

Ramin Bahrani clearly enjoys such narration, using Herzog’s skill in his short film Plastic Bag (2010). Bahrani knows that Herzog’s “kind of talking” is taken seriously. It is authoritative and lends weight to the ecological message that is announced in the picture. At the same time, simply speaking, Herzog knows how to tell a story. He knows how to read aloud. Perhaps it’s his ability to perform that makes his voice so engaging.

I’m pleased that I’ve heard Herzog speak in real life. Not too long ago, I went to London to hear him “in conversation”:  he still has the intellectual rigor and bite that made him spit this venom when, as a younger man, he stood in the jungle, surrounded by decay and chaos.


When he isn't busy writing about film, for his own blog as well as for the MacGuffin, Mark is currently studying English literature at Oxford University.

You can reach Mark via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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