When discussing the most fearless directors of all time, Werner Herzog will always be in the mix as one of the greatest pound for pound risk-takers and adventurers in the history of cinema. He faced a live volcano in ‘La Soufriere’ (1977), flew through the fires of Kuwait in ‘Lessons of Darkness’ (1992), was shot by a sniper during an interview with Mark Kermode, and famously cooked and ate his own shoe in Les Blank’s film ‘Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe’ (1980). The tales from his film sets are the stuff of legend and strangely endearing in that he will never ask an actor or crew member to do anything that he is not willing to do himself. When he accidentally injured some of his cast on ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small’ (1970), to make things right in their eyes he hurled himself into a cactus patch, the spines of which remain embedded in his knee to this day. In spite of his over-the-top and near-death experiences, there is one adversary to this day that fills him with feelings of intense loathing and fear that only Werner Herzog can properly describe. I first learned of this fierce antagonist in Paul Cronin’s riveting book ‘Werner Herzog – A Guide for the Perplexed’ when I came across the following quote:
‘Chickens in some forms – roasted, for example – are perfectly acceptable to me, but look into their eyes while they are alive and bear witness to genuine, bottomless stupidity. They are the most horrifying and nightmarish creatures in this world.’
I was a little stupefied by the intensity of this declaration. My only knowledge of Herzog’s relationship to chickens was from the 1977 film ‘Stroszek’ which famously ends with the dancing chicken sequence (see below). Herzog apparently had the dancing chicken train for months to build up its endurance in that it was ordinarily accustomed to dancing for only a few seconds before receiving a treat. The training clearly paid off and of all the enigmatic finales to Herzog’s films, this is easily one of the most discussed.
I decided to do a little digging online and came across an absolute treasure trove of strange quotes and interviews by Werner Herzog about his dreaded foe. His feelings toward chickens go back to the beginning of his career in film. On the set of ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small’ he watched in disgust as several chickens tried to cannibalize a one-legged member of their flock. Herzog became an expert at hypnotizing chickens and claims that it is quite easy to do. In his films ‘Signs of Life’ (1968) and ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ (1974) he demonstrates the technique where one simply holds the bird to the ground while drawing a line of chalk away from its head. Apparently they won’t budge an inch but if one draws the line in a circle, the chicken will follow the circle until it collapses. Now that journalists are aware of Herzog’s complicated relationship with chickens, they can’t resist the opportunity to question him on that front.
This vendetta against the chicken does not end with Herzog. One of his biggest admirers, Harmony Korine, who cast Herzog in his film ‘Julien Donkey-Boy’ (1999), had the following to say, “It is clear to me that he hates chickens, and this is one of the reasons why he has always been my favorite film film director. I too hate chickens.” I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t remember at any point in my life ever encountering a chicken in the flesh, or at least not close enough where I was able to perceive the dark, chaotic nature of the universe reflected in their empty gaze. Listening to Herzog on the subject, I feel as if I looked long and hard enough into the eyes of a chicken I would confront an evil akin to the slouching monstrosity of ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats or perhaps I might discover a slumbering Lovecraftian deity ready to loose havoc upon the world. It is safe to say I will never look at (or consume) a chicken the same way ever again but thanks to Herzog I now know a simple piece of chalk and a small circle is the best defense against these horrible monstrosities.
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