Skip to main content

From the 'Fresh Air' Archive: Beverly Sills

She was a home-grown phenomenon, an operatic soprano trained entirely in the U.S. in an era when most singers developed their craft in Europe, and she made a notable second career after her retirement as a formidable arts administrator and advocate. Fresh Air spoke with her in 1985.


Other segments from the episode on July 6, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 6, 2007: Commentary in Beverly Sills; Obituary for Beverly Sills; Review of the film "Rescue Dawn"; Interview with Werner Herzog.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Profile: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz on Beverly Sills,
who died Monday

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

You didn't have to know opera to know Beverly Sills. The American soprano
died earlier this week from lung cancer at the age of 78. Most Americans knew
her from her TV appearances with Carol Burnett and the Muppets, as a guest
host on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and from her own talk show. When she
retired from singing, she ran the New York City Opera and became chair of
Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. But none of this would matter if
she hadn't been an extraordinary singer. Next we'll hear an interview Terry
recorded with Beverly Sills. But first, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz
shares some thoughts about her career.

(Soundbite of opera music)


Beverly Sills was the best-loved American singer of her generation. Her
nickname, "Bubbles," tells a large part of the story. She was exuberant,
irrepressible, effervescent, smart and funny, and at the height of her 25-year
career as an opera singer, she had one of the most beautiful voices in the
world. Her fans called her "Beverly Trills." Later, some of her critics
called her "Beverly Shrills."

I heard her a lot when she was the reigning diva of Sarah Caldwell's Opera
Company of Boston, from the early 1960s into the mid-'70s. She was the
company workhorse who sang a wide repertory that embraced Mozart, early 19th
century bel canto, French romanticism, Verdi and Puccini, and contemporary
avant garde. I can still see her flaming mop of red hair sticking out from
behind the barricades in Luigi Nono's 12-tone anti-war opera "Intolleranzo."
In Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffman" she sang all four leading soprano parts.

And she always seemed to be having a good time. I'll never forget her
cracking up onstage in "The Barber of Seville" when the note she was supposed
to drop from her balcony fluttered into the orchestra pit. In one production
she was singing with a tenor who was so bad he refused to take a curtain call.
But Sills literally dragged him out from the wings for his bow. Critic
Michael Steinberg called her `the kind of woman who actually catches the
bouquets that are thrown at her across orchestra pits and footlights.'

1966 was her landmark year. In Boston she sang the lead in Caldwell's
dazzling production of an 18th century rarity, Rameau's "Hippolyte et Aricie,"
opposite an unknown young tenor named Placido Domingo. Sills astounded the
audience with the effortless beauty and agility of her coloratura. Shortly
after this, at the New York City Opera, her other operatic home, in a revival
of another 18th century opera, Handel's "Guilio Caesar," she made headlines as
the witty, seductive, self-knowing Cleopatra. After years of remaining
underappreciated, she became, as they say, an overnight sensation.

(Soundbite of opera music)

SCHWARTZ: My one regret about Sills' career is that she had the chance to
change the history of opera performance, reviving a lost repertoire of baroque
operas the way Maria Callas in the 1950s rediscovered and shed new light on
the forgotten early 19th century operas of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. Or
she could have won a whole new audience for operetta, some of her recordings
of which are unsurpassed. But Sills wanted to be an opera star more than an
exploring artist. She got what she wanted, and at her best she was a marvel.
Her uninhibited sincerity could really touch your heart. Here's one of my
favorite Sills' recordings, Mozart's heavenly "Ruhe Sanft"--"Rest
Peacefully"--from his unfinished opera "Zaide."

(Soundbite of "Ruhe Sanft")

SCHWARTZ: Despite her personal tragedies--two children with disabilities, her
daughter was deaf and couldn't hear her mother sing--Beverly Sills seemed a
steamroller, as her friend violinist Isaac Stern called her, someone who would
never let up or lose her sense of humor. She retired from singing at the age
of 51. She told an interviewer, `I wanted people to say, "You left too soon,"
not "You left too late."' She became a major arts administrator and a vigorous
spokesperson for the arts. Last year she served as the delightful host for
the new live Met closed-circuit telecast in movie theaters around the world.
No one else ever made a serious and demanding endeavor like opera seem like so
much fun.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: A 1985 interview with recently-deceased opera singer
Beverly Sills

In 1985 Terry Gross talked with Beverly Sills about her career and her life.
It was five years after she retired from performing and five years into her
tenure as the general director of the New York City Opera.


You're one of the few singers of your generation who made a career by studying
and performing in America. Were you told when you were getting started that
you'd really better go to Europe if you expected to really have a singing

Ms. BEVERLY SILLS: Well, yes, actually. I received a Fulbright, which I
didn't accept, after going through all the business of making the tapes and
presentations. There simply wasn't enough money for me to just take off and
go to Europe. My mother was widowed. I had two brothers in school becoming
doctors under the GI Bill. But there was very limited funds. My mother was
alone. I just felt that I was going to have to make it here. I just didn't
feel I had the luxury of going abroad, and something inside me made me resent
the fact that I couldn't make a living singing opera in my own country.

GROSS: You didn't sing at the Met until 1975...

Ms. SILLS: Right.

GROSS: Why do you think it took them that long to invite you to sing there?
Do you think it had to do with your lack of European performance?

Ms. SILLS: No. It had to do with Rudolf Bing, period.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SILLS: I said that I would never sing at the Met until Mr. Bing
retired, and the day after he retired I signed the contract
with...(unintelligible)...that was that.

GROSS: What was it between you and he?

Ms. SILLS: Well, it started out, of course, with the idea that he really
didn't feel that the American artist could add to the prestige of the
Metropolitan Opera. It is true that he was there in glorious times, when
there was Tebaldi and Del Monaco and Corelli and...(unintelligible)...and so,
you know, who needed the American? He had a great wealth of European artists
to choose from. He also wrote a book about me, and about me he wrote, `How
could a girl from Brooklyn know anything about about singing the queens of
Donizetti?' It's interesting; why should a girl from Brooklyn know less than,
let's say, a lady from Spain or, I mean--English queens are English queens.
It was just an attitude he had.

We have since, you know, become very close friends. He had a radio program
and invited me to go on it, which I thought took a lot of courage on his part,
and we found we had the same kind of humor, and he announced on the radio that
I was his biggest mistake, and that his greatest regret was not that I didn't
sing at the Met, because I proved that I didn't need the Met, but that we
could have been friends for 20 years, and that he regrets.

GROSS: One of the turning points in your career was when you sang the role of
Cleopatra in "Guilio Caesar," and it was a critically acclaimed...

Ms. SILLS: Yeah, that was really the turning point.

GROSS: Right. Now, you had told Julius Rudel, the head of the New York City
Opera, that if he hired someone outside the company for the role of Cleopatra,
as he had been considering doing, that you were going to quit.

Ms. SILLS: Yes.

GROSS: Did it ever dawn on you that he might have said, `Well, then goodbye'?

Ms. SILLS: Yes. Oh, I--he said to me, `You're not going to quit.' I said,
`Yes, I am.' Well, he said, `How will that accomplish your singing
"Cleopatra"?' And I said, `I will do my first New York recital at Carnegie
Hall. Peter'--my husband--`has offered to give it to me as a present, and I
will sing all five of the Cleopatra arias that are in your version.' And he
burst out laughing. I said to him, `Julius, take someone inside the company,
not me, and I won't open my mouth. But going outside implies there's nobody
within who can do it, and that simply isn't true, and it's just too demeaning.
I'll never fight you on taking another soprano who's with us. That's
your--you're the director of the company. You're supposed to take the one
that you feel does it best, but to go outside means there's nobody here who
can do it, and that's just a lie. So I don't accept it.'

GROSS: Had you ever done anything like that before?

Ms. SILLS: No.

GROSS: Given an ultimatum like that?

Ms. SILLS: No, but you understand, in 1966 I was already 37 years old. I
wasn't a young singer. In the past, when I had first begun, I didn't have
financial security. It was hard for me to walk away from any job that paid me
anything. I was a married woman. My husband was a very successful
businessman, and it didn't worry me that I might not have enough money. My
mother was cared for, both my brothers were doctors already. So, you know,
life was moving on. And singing was not the be-all and end-all in my life. I
had my husband and my family. I had a very good life outside of the opera
house, so I didn't feel desperate. And I was never terribly ambitious. I
never dreamed this career would happen. I wanted to sing because I loved to
sing. I really did. I couldn't wait to get to the theater to sing.

But when I made that ultimatum, I made it with the idea that, yes, he could
say, `Look, that's my decision.' I also made it from a very secure feeling of
knowing that at that moment I was doing all the parts in Hoffman for him,
"Dona Ana," "The Queen of the Night, "Constanza" and "The Abduction from the
Seraglio." You don't replace me that easily. You have somebody who every
fourth night can walk in and do four of the most difficult things in the
repertoire. You don't just dismiss her lightly, and coming up were a
tremendous number of projects that required my capabilities, such as they
were, and he knew it.

But in the case of the Cleopatra, it was the opening night of the new theater,
the opening night of its first grand opera season. I felt I had stuck with
the company. I'd been with it 11 years at that point. I just felt that
opening night should have been mine, particularly since the role was made for
my voice.

GROSS: Do you think you sang especially well that first night?

Ms. SILLS: Yes, I think I did. I think the excitement caught on. I think
Treigle and I were at our very, very best. We really--I looked up at one
point and I thought, `My god, he's a singing Gielgud,' you know. It was an
extraordinary moment. I think that opening night, nobody could have touched

DAVIES: Beverly Sills, speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 1985 interview with Beverly Sills, who died
earlier this week.

GROSS: Throughout your career in opera, you have been known as not only an
excellent singer but as an excellent actress as well. And I would really like
for you to tell a story that you relay in your memoir about working with
Pavarotti and your fear that, after he took an aria he was going to bow, and
like break with the role momentarily, and you didn't want that to happen.

Ms. SILLS: No, well, you know, we had different training, really. When you
grow up with the New York City Opera, which is a repertory company, you find
yourself playing cameo roles one night and four nights later you're the
leading lady. So there really isn't time to think about curtain calls and
bows. Luciano is a very warm individual. That's not a play that he acts out
when he's onstage. I think the hanky came later, but the ebullience and
outpouring comes from the man himself, and it is a kind of love affair he has
with the public. And when they applaud a lot, he just likes to acknowledge
and say `thank you' right away.

I did go to see him and beg him not to do that, and I said to him, `You know,
everything we do will bring the house down if we do it well because Bellini is
one show-stopper after another. And it's disconcerting and I've got that
crazy mad scene coming up. I've got to start the character right from the
beginning and she's such an elusive girl anyhow. It's not like Lucia, that
is, you know, that builds to a terrific, terrific madness. This is just kind
of wacky.' And I said to him, you know, `Let's not bow,' and he said, `I can't
promise.' And we had this big duet ending in a great big embrace with our
heads in each other's necks sort of, and the house came down, and suddenly
they were still applauding, and he said to me, `One little bow, Beverlina,'
and I said, `No.' So he bit me in the neck, and of course, I pulled back and
there we were. It certainly looked to the audience as if we were bowing.

GROSS: Are there any, well, conventions in opera that you think are really
pretensions of opera that you'd like to see stripped away--like the hanky, for

Ms. SILLS: Yes. You know, I'd like to see all pretensions in opera stripped
away. I'd like to see a much more naturalistic approach to the acting.
Corelli had it. He knew how to lean back against the wall and sing the
third-act aria in "Tosca," just by putting his hands in his pockets. I hate
operatic poses. I think we shouldn't be afraid to turn out backs on the
audience while we're singing if it's a natural movement to make. I think we
shouldn't hesitate to sing an ugly tone if the word we're saying is an ugly
one. It should be spit out and not prettily voiced. And I'd like to see
lighting much more naturalistic. If it's a hot summer Mediterranean day, I'd
like you to feel that the people are sweaty. It's a given that I'd like to
have beautiful singing. I mean, there is no opera without a beautiful voice.
But for me, that's only about 60 percent of the evening. The other 40 is to
touch me emotionally and intellectually.

GROSS: When you look back on your career in music now, from the vantage point
of being the director of the New York City Opera, are there any things that
you really wish you could have done differently or want to change?

Ms. SILLS: Nothing. There isn't even a role I left undone. It's funny. I
would have perhaps liked to have sung more in Europe. But with my children,
that was impossible to put so much distance between us. Other than that,
can't think of a single thing I'd have done differently.

DAVIES: Beverly Sills speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. She died earlier
this week at the age of 78. Her farewell performance was on October 27th,
1980, after 25 years performing with the New York City Opera. She ended the
evening with her rendition of the Portuguese folk song "Tell Me Why."

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Tell Me Why")

Ms. SILLS: (Singing) Time has come for me to leave you
'Tis the moment for goodbye
Ah, my sweet, we have to part now
Please brush your tears from those dear eyes
We have shared so much together
'Tis not the end but a new start
Ah, my dear, I'll always love you
You'll be forever in my heart
Ah, my dear, I'll always love you
You'll be forever in my heart

(End of soundbite)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein on the film "Rescue Dawn"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. For more than
30 years, German-born film director Werner Herzog has been making feature
films and documentaries, and for the first time he's made one of each on the
same subject. His new film, and his first Hollywood feature, "Rescue Dawn,"
recounts the grueling ordeal in the Laotian jungle of Navy pilot Dieter
Dengler, who was the subject of Herzog's 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs
to Fly." In a moment we'll hear Terry's interview with Herzog about the
documentary. First, David Edelstein has a review of "Rescue Dawn."


Dieter Dengler reportedly wasn't satisfied with Werner Herzog's documentary
about his life, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." He liked it--and he should
have--it put him on a pedestal. The 1997 film recounted the German-American
Dengler's experience as a pilot in the early days of the Vietnam War. He was
shot down on a secret bombing raid over Laos and held by a ragtag group of
enemy soldiers in near-"Deer Hunter" conditions. But Dengler didn't go into
detail about his life in that makeshift jungle prison camp because, he has
said, he didn't want to be ungenerous toward his fallen comrades, and so he
felt the story was incomplete.

Herzog agreed; hence, "Rescue Dawn," a dramatization. Seeing it, I had a
hunch Herzog always wanted to make his own "Deer Hunter," his own story of
wartime cruelty and survival. His favorite theme is front and center: a man
tested against nature, his sanity more precarious than his body. But this
time, you don't get Herzog's loitering camera, his heavy Teutonic musings or
the usual self-dramatizing protagonist. The movie is lean and wiry, the
artistry artfully camouflaged.

Christian Bale is Dieter. He's a Brit playing an Americanized German, and his
accent falls somewhere in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Brooklyn, but
Bale catches Dengler's restlessness, the bravery as much the result of
impatience as nobility of soul.

In both films, Dengler says he needed to fly when he caught a glimpse of an
American pilot in the cockpit of a plane, a plane that happened to be strafing
his German city. What would a psychologist call that? Identifying with the
enemy? It's so outlandish, you can understand why it would engage Herzog, who
made his reputation spinning sagas of men who strive to the point of madness
to meet and conquer what oppresses them.

Herzog wastes little time in Vietnam, where Dengler hopes to partake in
Saigon's fabled licentiousness. The young pilot is promptly dropping bombs on
Laotian villages and promptly shot down by anti-aircraft fire. It's here, as
he flees the Viet Cong, that the movie bursts into life amid the deep greens
of the jungle with its absurdly huge leaves providing cover for the pursued,
pursuers and occasional poisonous snake. Dengler tries to merge with that
landscape, yet at the same time to be spotted by American air patrols.

The scenes after his capture are like nothing I've seen. He's marched through
a village and waves hi to the men, women and children he was bombing, and they
follow, laughing, as he's dragged behind a truck. He won't sign a
denunciation of the country that gave him wings, so he's taken deep in the
jungle and thrown into a shack with a half dozen South Vietnamese and American
wrecks. He barely hesitates before planning an escape, which a fellow
prisoner, played by Steve Zahn, finds dubious.

(Soundbite of "Rescue Dawn")

Mr. STEVE ZAHN: (As Duane) Without water, you won't survive more than two
days out there. Without water, your tracks will be visible for even more.
The jungle is the prison, don't you get it?

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Hey, when does the rainy season

Mr. ZAHN: (As Duane) Five months, maybe six.

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) I can't wait that long.

Mr. ZAHN: (As Duane) Hey, listen, let's say you do survive the jungle and
lack water. There's six guards posted during the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Yeah. That is during the day. I'm going at
night. Hm.

(End of soundbite)

EDELSTEIN: As their fear and hunger grows, Zahn's character burrows into
himself, while another prisoner, played by Jeremy Davies, sprouts dementia
like werewolf hair. The men make charts, learn how to slip in and out of
shackles, and trace the movements of their captors. Their primal dependence
on one another, and at times their primal repulsion, is exacerbated by their
isolation. You can feel their sense of dwindling options in that shrouded
landscape, and their starvation in a country denuded of crops by American

There are episodes in "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" I wish had been included in
its fictional counterpart, as well as details of Dengler's childhood that
explain his uncanny stamina. I even recommend seeing the movies back to back
with a bowl of rice in between to slake the sympathetic hunger.

"Rescue Dawn" is such a confident piece of storytelling, it made me wish that
Herzog had gone Hollywood earlier. He has a fascinating body of work, but he
might have made some great old-fashioned adventure movies without selling out
his sensibilities. Maybe at the young age of 65, he still can.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

Coming up, we hear Terry's interview with Werner Herzog about his documentary
based on Dieter Dengler's story. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Werner Herzog on his documentary "Little Dieter Needs
to Fly"

Filmmaker Werner Herzog is one of the directors who re-established Germany as
a major force in cinema after its movie industry was decimated by Hitler and
World War II. Herzog was born in 1942. Like the Dieter Dengler story told in
his new film "Rescue Dawn," many of Herzog's movies have been about physical
and emotional extremes, often involving enigmatic characters struggling
against seemingly impossible odds. His film "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" is
about a mad Spanish conquistador. "Fitzcarraldo" follows a man obsessed with
building an opera house in the jungle.

In 1998, Terry spoke to Herzog about his first film based on Dieter Dengler,
the documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Dengler was a German-born US
Navy pilot who was shot down during the war in Vietnam, then imprisoned and
tortured in Laos. In this scene from the documentary, Dengler describes the
day he escaped.

(Soundbite of "Little Dieter Needs to Fly")

Mr. DIETER DENGLER: I went out in the open. Nobody came from this side,
except the guards. They're running in my direction. I must have heard or
seen the other guys and this big shootout started. All of a sudden the
bullets were flying. Somehow we had miscalculated. Somebody had a rifle in
there. I had a submachine gun in my hand. I'd never shot one before. When I
pulled the trigger, it practically flew out of my hand. It raised up like
that, and this allowed them to close this distance real quick. They came
within two or three feet from me. The moron, one of the guys, had a machete
in his hands. He came within four, five feet. I shot him through the hip.
It lifted threw him up. It threw him down on the ground. Next thing I'm
looking up, he's getting up again. He still has the machete. He's still
coming at me. Of course, this time I couldn't miss. He was right two or
three feet in front of me.

I couldn't believe it. I didn't have a scratch. There's five dead guards
laying on the ground. Two of them got away. The red zigzag pattern. They
got in the jungle. I knew right then and there they would get help and we had
to get out of there.

Where was Duane? I saw him behind this bush over here. He had vomited. I
yelled to him, `Duane, let's get out of here! Let's get out of here!' We took
off, we ran down between the kitchen. We ran amongst those dead guys laying
on the ground; and it was very important because our shoes were tied together
in a bundle, were hanging on this hut over here. The shoes we needed in the
jungle, but when we got there they were already taken. The other guys must
have taken them, run off with them. And then Duane and I, we had no choice
but to turn around. Barefoot, we ran into the jungle.

(Soundbite of jungle sounds)

Mr. DANGLER: After seven of us had escaped, I was the only one that came out
alive. The other ones disappeared in the jungle and nobody ever heard from
them again.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Dieter Dengler's escape was filled with hellish adventures, including
surviving a monsoon without any protection. Terry asked Herzog how he thought
Dengler was changed by his experience.

Mr. WERNER HERZOG: I do believe that he was not very much changed, because
he had a very difficult and hard childhood, and that somehow linked me
together with him immediately. Both of us grew up in tiny, rural villages, in
rural areas remote from everything. We didn't know what TV was, what a
telephone was. I made my first phone call at the age of 17. And he knew
hunger, and he knew all the hardships of growing up as a post-war child. And
I do believe that he was extremely well prepared, better than anyone else that
I would know, for an ordeal of that nature. He had all the qualities that
make America so wonderful, the qualities of self-reliance, courage, spirit of
some sort of a frontier and all those things.


You brought him back to the jungle and had him simulate some of the scenes
that he lived through when he was in the prison camp. It seems like it was
almost masochistic on his part to agree to that.

Mr. HERZOG: Not really, because he felt very much at ease with this whole
thing. Fact is that he has been at least 15 times before we made the film...


Mr. HERZOG: ...back to the jungle, back to Southeast Asia. He loves Asian
people. He loves the qualities, the human qualities of his former enemies,
and that may be the only change, to come back to the previous question. He
changed his attitude about the opponent, about the enemy, the Vietnamese, the
Laotians. He had no concept of who they were. I mean, he started in the war
very, very early, in 1965, and nobody really talked about Vietnam, and he
thought it would be over in three weeks, that they just had to assist some
South Vietnamese generals to stop a few insurgents from the North. And in his
first mission of North Vietnam, he was actually shot down after 40 minutes.
So he didn't really capture what the war was all about.

Once he was found on the ground, the entire country was not an abstract grid
on a map anymore. All of a sudden, it was filled with voices, with human
beings, with people who were starving, people who were under pressure of air
attacks and all this. And almost immediately he started to change his
attitude, to understand that there were real people down there, real suffering
down there, real death down there.

GROSS: He seems to be very obsessive in his descriptions of the past,
obsessed with what is required to survive, and he's almost a survivalist now.
I mean, you have him saying that he keeps hundreds of pounds of grains in his
house in case of emergency because he knows what it's like to be without food.
And watching the movie, I kept wondering, was this guy really obsessive before
his imprisonment, or did he become obsessive as a result of his imprisonment?
And I know that you are very interested in obsession and are probably pretty
obsessive yourself, so I was wondering, you have any thoughts about that.

Mr. HERZOG: I wouldn't really call him obsessive...


Mr. HERZOG: Of course, he has been changed by all these experiences, and he
feels much safer to have 1100 pounds of rice...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HERZOG: ...and 1,000 pounds of flour under his kitchen floor dug into
the ground. Sure, that is understandable. And he has developed certain
safeguards. He's a very wholesome man, a very healthy human being. Sometimes
I have the feeling he's hiding his wounds and he's hiding the terror behind
some very causal remarks. I would, for example, ask him in private, `Dieter,
don't you have any nightmares of that time, is there nothing left?' And he
says, `Oh, that was the fun part of my life.' So we can only sense that
there's still some open wounds within the man, but he's not collapsing and not
struggling for his sanity and all those things that you might have seen among
many of the Vietnam veterans who came home and who were innerly destroyed.

GROSS: How come you've been making so many documentaries? I know you've made
documentaries on and off through your career, but it seems to be, well,
exclusively what you're doing now?

Mr. HERZOG: It's not the exclusive thing I'm doing now. Once in a while I
stage operas. I love to live and breathe and work with music. But it is true
in the last couple of years I've only done documentaries, and that was a
development, a deep question about filmmaking, probably about writing or art
in general: What constitutes truth in, for example, a great poem? When you
read Robert Frost and you have some very deep feeling about it, and all of a
sudden you have the sensation there is some deep, inexplicable and mysterious
truth in it.

And the same thing happens in movies. And it does not happen, strangely
enough, in most of the documentaries that you would see on television. You
would not find it in the so-called cinema verite, which can only scratch the
surface of what is truth. It's the accountant's truth, it's the bookkeeper's
truth. And yet I have been, for years, after the question, how can you dig
into a very deep stratum of truth into something inexplicable, something
mysterious? And of course you can reach it and you can find it, but normally
through invention, through imagination, through fabrication, sometimes even
contorting and stylizing events right out there, and then all of a sudden you
will find something strange and deep and elusive and that is a certain truth.

And you must not make the mistake to believe that everything in "Little Dieter
Needs to Fly" is the accountant's truth. Much of it has been invented. His
dreams are my invention, or, for example, there is a scene where he tries to
explain how death looks like for him, and he's standing in front of a tank
with jellyfish in it, a water tank, and he simply tried to explain it to me
what death was looking like for him, and he had no image, and he described it
in a way that I immediately figured it was jellyfish slowing moving, almost
dancing in a void and in a slow motion, transparent, strange movement, and
that was exactly what was needed. He only couldn't express it, but I had the
image for it.

GROSS: My guest is film director Werner Herzog.

You were born in 1942 and grew up in Germany at the very end of the war and in
the post-war period. I'm wondering what your early memories are of the war or
the post-war period.

Mr. HERZOG: I don't have clear memories of that time. You have to imagine
that when I was born in Munich, only two weeks later a bomb hit the house next
to us, and our place was half destroyed. And my mother discovered me, the
baby, under a foot of shards of glass and debris. But I was unhurt, but my
mother fled to the remotest mountain valley in Bavaria, and we got stuck
there. So by the age of 11 I had no idea what a telephone was. I had never
seen movies. I had never seen a TV set. I barely had seen cars in my life,
and you may not believe this, but I made my first phone call at the age of 17.
But I made my first movie at the age of 19. So that explains a little bit
about the background and, of course, I remember the hardships, and I remember
that I was hungry as a child and we had nothing to eat and things like this,
which was quite all right, because I had a wonderful childhood and I wouldn't
like to miss that.

DAVIES: Filmmaker Werner Herzog speaking with Terry Gross in 1998.

We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with Werner Herzog. His new
feature film is "Rescue Dawn."

GROSS: You are very interested, as a filmmaker, in unusual and sometimes
surrealistic kind of landscapes, and extreme landscapes, whether it's, you
know, it's the jungle, or the desert, or a bombed-out area, and I'm wondering
if you had a lot of visual images like that kind of imprinted in you in the
post-war era when Germany was so bombed out?

Mr. HERZOG: No, I belonged to those Germans who didn't have a childhood
image of the post-war Germany, because in this mountain village there was no
real warfare. It was just occupied by 60 Americans at the very, very end of
the war. It was the last pocket of unoccupied territory. When Germany shrank
more and more and more, all of a sudden this was the last remaining unoccupied
square mile or whatever, and 60 Americans moved in in jeeps and they were
totally relaxed, chewing gum, and I had the feeling this was all the Americans
of the world. And for the first time I saw a black man, and I was totally
mesmerized by seeing him because I had only heard about black people in fairy
tales, and I immediately became friends with him and talked to him for hours.

So what I want to say is the climate was not the climate of total destruction
that Germany had witnessed all around me. It was a mountain village, a
mountain valley, remote, and just nature around. And only when I was 11 and
the war was well over, I saw destroyed cities and bombed-out places, and I
developed a concept of what must have happened.

GROSS: And were you frightened by that concept?

Mr. HERZOG: No, not really. It's strange, because everybody thinks that
German children who grew up in the post-wartime had a terrible childhood. In
the country nobody was frightened. All my school friends who grew up in the
cities, they are delirious about speaking of this time when they grew up in
ruins and there was no--it was pure anarchy in the best sense of the word.
There were no fathers around to tell them what to do and how to do things.
They would be the masters and the kings of, let's say, a whole block that was
bombed out, and it was the most wonderful playground for children.

For example, in my case, in this last days of war, some soldiers had fled into
this area and had hidden their weapons under the hay or in the forest, and by
age four, age five I had a working submachine gun and fired with it, and I
tried to hunt a crow because I wanted to make a soup, I was so hungry. And my
mother discovered that and she was totally calm and explained to us how lethal
a weapon like that could be by just demonstrating it by shooting one single
round through a thick log of beech wood. And we were so stunned by the
violence and force of such a weapon that we immediately had a clear sense how
to behave, and it was just learning by experience. And the childhood of
practically all the children who grew up in the post-wartime was wonderful, as
strange and as paradoxical as it may sound.

GROSS: Now, you did have a father, I believe, and I think you've described
him as someone who was a militant atheist, and at 14 you converted to
Catholicism. Was that like in reaction against your father?

Mr. HERZOG: I do not believe so, because I grew up without the presence of
my father...

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. HERZOG: In other words, my father was away in the war, and then he was
prisoner of war and came back a year and a half later and then almost
immediately divorced my mother, so I grew up without his presence. I wouldn't
say it was a move against an overwhelming father figure; he was simply not

But at the age of 14 that was a time of extremely lucid moments that I had. I
had a very intensive religious urge, and I started to travel on foot. I
walked all around the country, Albania, always following its borderline.
That's exactly Kosovo, where there's all this turmoil right now. But I was
only 14 and a child, and at that time I knew and I decided that my destiny,
inevitably, was to be a poet or be the one who had to make the images with to
make the films. And I saw all this very, very clearly, knowing that it would
not be an easy life.

GROSS: I've read about this walk around Albania when you were a teenager, and
I can't say I really understand what motivated you to do something so both
extreme and, in some ways, pointless.

Mr. HERZOG: No, it was not pointless, certainly not at that time. And
whenever I have traveled on foot--and I've traveled very, very large

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HERZOG: always would have a very intensive, essential reason in my

GROSS: What was the reason with Albania?

Mr. HERZOG: It was a deep mystery. There was, in the middle of Europe, a
white dot on the map, a country that was totally inaccessible. It was like
Tibet in the '50s or '40s, when nobody was allowed to go in, visas were denied
to everyone. And also, some sort of a heritage. My mother's family comes
from the Balkans; they were actually Croatians. So there were deep reasons
behind all these things.

I can give you an example, which is easier to understand. When I wanted to
marry and have children, I could have done it over the phone to propose. I
could have written a letter and propose. I could have taken a car. But I had
the feeling a real man walks to his woman and proposes and asks the questions,
and so I crossed the Alps and I walked about 1,000 miles and knocked at the
door of my future wife, and in this case I actually told her that I had come
on foot because I had one question to ask, so I asked it. And I think that
was the right way to do it, so there was a very existential reason for it.

GROSS: Werner Herzog, I'd love to talk more. We're out of time. It's really
been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. HERZOG: You're welcome.

DAVIES: Werner Herzog speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. His new film,
"Rescue Dawn," is a dramatic retelling of the story from his 1997 documentary,
"Little Dieter Needs to Fly."


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue