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Week of  30 November 2001 · Vol. V, No. 15


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CAS prof's filmmaking odyssey has dramatic results

By Hope Green

  Herbert Golder and Werner Herzog atop Mount Huayna Picchu, Peru, where Herzog filmed a portion of his 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starring Klaus Kinski. Herzog and Golder were there in 1999 for the filming of My Best Fiend, a documentary on Herzog and Kinski's stormy relationship, and Wings of Hope, the story of a young plane-crash survivor. Photo courtesy of Herbert Golder

If Sophocles were alive today he'd make movies, the eminent classicist and film critic William Arrowsmith was fond of saying.

Herbert Golder takes the quip about the ancient Greek dramatist one step further. "If Sophocles were alive today," Golder says, "he'd make Werner Herzog films."

Herzog is an internationally acclaimed, sometimes controversial German director whose themes and characters resonate with plays first performed in Athens 2,500 years ago: stories of survival against all odds, and also, by contrast, tales of tragic heroes or madmen with grandiose schemes that are doomed from the start. Golder (UNI'75), a CAS associate professor of classics and editor of BU's scholarly journal Arion, has for the past 13 years had the good fortune to learn the art of filmmaking at Herzog's side, an adventure that has taken him to a rural Latvian village as well as to the rugged landscapes of Thailand and Peru.

Golder's credits include assistant director, cowriter, and occasionally, producer on five completed Herzog films and several more that are in progress. In Invincible, an upcoming Fine Line Features release, he even has a small acting role. And with Herzog's encouragement, Golder has begun to direct his own movies. One that he's working on is about a failed Arctic expedition; another is based on the ancient tale of Grettir, an Icelandic strongman. Yet Golder doesn't anticipate quitting academia for Hollywood any time soon: he loves teaching and the scholarly life too much.

"The same paradigms of human experience that drew me to the classics also drew me to film," he says. "Even though they might seem worlds apart, in terms of creating a vision of the human experience, the filmmaker and the Greek dramatist are really not so different."

Sophocles as auteur
Golder's passion for both cinema and the classics were nurtured in college. It was under the mentorship of the late Arrowsmith, a UNI professor, that he came to appreciate filmmakers as "the great humanistic visionaries of our time." He sat transfixed in a film course where Arrowsmith analyzed the works of Michelangelo Antonioni and other directors, he says, "drawing upon a vast knowledge of the Western tradition to show how contemporary films often refresh ancient myths and experience."

Motivated by the course, Golder immersed himself in the study of Greek and Latin, the epic poetry of Homer, and the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus.

"The classics became my career and my life," he says. "But I always thought I'd come back to film. I thought I'd be content to just write about films, the way I write about Greek drama, but I never thought I'd be fortunate enough to make them."

Then fate intervened. While on a visiting fellowship at Oxford in 1988, Golder went to hear Herzog speak in London at the premiere of his latest work. Golder lingered after the screening and introduced himself. To his astonishment, Herzog recognized his name: he'd learned from a mutual acquaintance that Golder wanted to write a book about his films.

The two men agreed to meet in Germany later that summer. Herzog was impressed with Golder's knowledge of the classics. "At the end of the conversation, Werner sat back and looked at me and said, 'Herb, forget this book you're writing about me, because there's absolutely no doubt in my mind you're destined to be a filmmaker, and you're going to start working with me today!'"

True to his word, that day Herzog drove Golder to the German National Athletic Championship in Frankfurt, where he needed help recording the primal scream of a hammer thrower for one of his soundtracks.

Since then Golder has been assistant director on a half-dozen Herzog productions. One that gives him considerable pride is the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which was nominated for a 1999 Emmy Award after it aired on HBO. It relates the misadventures of Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos at the start of the Vietnam War, taken prisoner, and tortured, then made a harrowing escape into Thailand. The pilot agreed to return to Asia and reenact his ordeal, with Thai soldiers recruited to play his guards.

Similarly, Juliane Koepcke, who as a teenager was the sole survivor of a 1971 plane crash in the Peruvian Amazon, returned to the disaster site with Herzog and Golder to film the documentary Wings of Hope.

Location, location
Like the Greek myths, says Golder, "Herzog's films represent man at the extreme limits of his courage and endurance." Legend has it he puts cast and crew to the same test. He's famous for shooting on location in harsh wilderness settings and obsessively striving for the perfect scene, even if it means carrying a steamship up a hillside. (He orchestrated that maneuver in the production of Fitzcarraldo, which is about a mad Irishman who wants to build an opera house in the jungle.) But Golder believes Herzog's artistic zeal has been unfairly characterized.

"In spite of all the stories of him going to the far reaches of the earth and risking everyone's life, that's all exaggeration," he says. "He's the consummate professional and would never ask anybody to do something he himself would not do. We go to remote places because the films require those locations -- it gives authenticity to the stories."

For Invincible, the authentic setting is not a desert or remote mountain pass, but small villages in western Latvia and Lithuania. The film is based on the true story of Zishe Breitbart, a Jewish blacksmith's son from Poland who in the 1930s became the strongest man in the world. To support his family, Breitbart (played by Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola) seeks work in Berlin and performs feats of strength in a nightclub, where the manager changes his name to Siegfried the Iron King to disguise his ethnicity.

"He becomes the hero of all the Nazis, who come to see him as the symbol of Aryan power," Golder says. "He grows increasingly disgusted by all the ugliness around him and what he's become, and one night he's about to break a world record for weight lifting when he rips his wig off and reveals his identity, unleashing a scandal in Berlin."

Tim Roth plays a nightclub owner, Hanussen, the famous clairvoyant who predicted the coming of Hitler. Golder makes his screen debut as a rabbi who befriends and counsels Zishe.

"It's a small part, but I have the longest monologue in the film," he says. "My character helps him come to understand that he's a man with a destiny, and then he finds it himself. He believes God has given him this physical strength for a reason, so he goes back to Poland, and like an Old Testament prophet, he travels from village to village trying to warn people about the Nazis. But they only want to see him perform feats of strength."

The film is scheduled for worldwide release in March. Several others are in production, including a feature-length version of Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
Golder considers it a great privilege to collaborate with Herzog, who allows him to stand by his side as the camera rolls. "Werner has enormous, hypnotic powers of concentration and focus," Golder says. "I've learned every angle of filmmaking by working with him."

Instructional applications
The movie projects have also been a rich source of material for Golder's teaching. Each fall, COM film majors as well as CAS humanities scholars enroll in a Topics in Myth course called The Drama of Greek Tragic Myth into Film.

"We read a Greek play and then look at a film that is either obliquely or directly based on it," he explains. For instance, the class reads Oedipus and then views Roman Polanski's film Chinatown, in which the camera repeatedly lingers on images of eyes and broken lenses. "Oedipus, among other things, is about a man who looks into his own darkness and must know the truth about himself," Golder says. "A crucial moment in the play is when he is blinded. The cinema is such a looking into darkness, both literally and figuratively.

"My understanding of the material I teach is now so much more profound and useful to students who take my class, because I've been involved hands-on with this kind of work at a very challenging, demanding level," he says of his ongoing partnership with Herzog. "It informs my understanding of other filmmakers' work, and I think it makes what I have to deliver to the students that much more enriched and credible."


30 November 2001
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