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Oct 30, 2016
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And finally today, it's time for another installment in our series My Big Break. That's where we hear about pivotal moments in the lives of accomplished people. And normally when we say that we mean some chance meeting or opportunity that led to a breakthrough. But when we ask German filmmaker Werner Herzog about his big break, he took it in a direction all his own.

WERNER HERZOG: I do not break. You can throw anything at me and the worse it gets, the more instantaneously I will tackle the problem.

MARTIN: Which isn't to say that he hasn't had defining moments on the path to international renown. We'll get to some of those in a minute. But he credits his success to the way he's lived his life following his curiosity.

HERZOG: Truth is I never had a career so to speak. I was just always somehow fascinated or haunted by ideas that are ferociously swinging at me like burglars in the night.

MARTIN: That may be how Herzog has been able to work at such a feverish pace for more than five decades to translate those ideas coming at him onto the screen, often releasing two or three movies a year that on the surface seemed to have little in common, such as the feature film "Aguirre, Wrath Of God" about a power hungry conquistador or the documentary "Grizzly Man" about a bear enthusiast who lived among the bears of Alaska until he was mauled to death. And Herzog's latest film out this week on Netflix is a documentary called "Into The Inferno." It's about volcanoes around the world, but as with any Herzog film, it's really about much more than that.


HERZOG: It is hard to take your eyes off the fire that burns deep under our feet. It is a fire that wants to burst forth and it could not care less about what we are doing up here.

MARTIN: While Herzog maintains he's not defined by any one moment, the road to his incredible resume of more than 70 films was set in motion decades ago. As a Bavarian schoolboy in the 1950s, he had no idea what a movie even was.

HERZOG: I grew up in a very remote mountain village in the Bavarian Alps. My first contact with the cinema came when I was 11 at this little schoolhouse. It was actually one classroom. And one day a traveling projectionist arrived and put up a screen and showed two films.

They didn't impress me at all. They were pretty lousy, but later when I moved to the big city to Munich for high school, I would see "Tarzan" and "Zorro."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Out of the night when the full moon is bright comes a horse known as Zorro.

HERZOG: And "Dr. Fu Manchu."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Dr. Fu Manchu.

HERZOG: And there was a moment where I saw that a shot of a gun battle was recycled. Somebody shot down from a rock.


HERZOG: Ten minutes later in the same film, I see the same three-second shot again.


HERZOG: And nobody of my friends had seen that and understood that it was recycled, and that's how I started to look at cinema in a different way. How do they create a story? How do they create suspense? And that was a moment where I started to look deeper and differently.

MARTIN: Werner Herzog had found his medium. But before he could put those insights into practice, he needed to get his hands on the tools of the trade. He tried to get a hold of a rental camera from the Munich film school to no avail, until one day he happened to find himself unattended in the school's equipment room with a shelf full of 35-millimeter cameras.

HERZOG: I just took one and walked out with it and started filming. I had the intention to return it which I kind of failed later. But I had never felt it was theft. It was something I needed to have, and I had a natural right to have a camera. At the time when I started to develop movie projects, nobody would take my films so I knew I had to be my own producer, and I worked the night shift in a steel factory as a welder. And I had a sense fairly early on it was not going to be easy what I was doing. My life would be difficult and I said to myself, yes, I'm going to shoulder it no matter what.

MARTIN: Indeed, there were many difficulties along the way. Herzog's productions have been notoriously beset by adversity from plane crashes and border wars to malaria outbreaks. Somebody even made a movie about Herzog's effort to drag a 350-ton steam boat over a mountain in the Amazon for one of his films.

HERZOG: In doing all these things, of course, there were breaking points every 10 minutes. Every single day in making a film is an array of compromises, but it shouldn't break you. It should improve the quality of your film. You have to know that you have it in you to continue to endure the almost unendurable.

MARTIN: That's filmmaker Werner Herzog on his big break or lack thereof. His latest film "Into The Inferno" started streaming on Netflix this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.