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It's hard to say which event in midtown Manhattan on Thursday night was cooler: New German Cinema legend Werner Herzog in conversation with director Jonathan Demme at the Times Center, or the two crazed climbers who attempted to scale the New York Times building right next door just a few hours earlier. In some ways, the two occurrences worked together: It was later announced that one of the climbers did it in order to raise awareness about global warming, a relevant issue for anyone interested in Herzog's latest film, the remarkable Antarctica odyssey Encounters at the End of the World. Like most of Herzog's documentary work, it's a brilliant amalgam of gorgeous imagery and Herzog's personal philosophies. Not a scientist himself, he spends time in their company down south, seeking to understand their behavior ("Is this a big moment?" he asks when they nonchalantly announce the discovery of a new bacterium).
Demme, admitting that he and Herzog had just met earlier in the evening, opened the conversation by reading an effusive letter to Herzog written by Roger Ebert after the critic discovered that the director dedicated Encounters to him. Herzog seemed displeased that Ebert printed the letter ("Those things should stay between two men") but had only praise for his friend. "I salute him, a good soldier of cinema," he said. "We have very few left."
The other star of the show was the Museum of the Moving Image, which hosted the conversation to celebrate the launch of their nifty new outlet, Moving Image Source, which contains essays and research guides for cinephiles everywhere. MOMI curator David Schwartz introduced Herzog and Demme by noting that both directors make provocative nonfiction and fiction films; appropriately enough, you could definitely sense a kinship between them. Herzog admitted that he was a fan of Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. "I've never been so scared so deeply," Herzog said, "and I don't scare easy." That got a laugh. "I can't respond to that," Demme said, collecting himself.
In turn, Demme told Herzog that a single sustained shot of the water near the end of his eerie jungle romp Aguirre: Wrath of God left a distinct impression on the younger filmmaker. "This moment of cinema moved me so much," Demme said. "I loved that it kept going even though I couldn't exactly explain why that was. Eventually, I moved from that to holding shots more and more in my own work." Considering the inspiration he takes from Herzog's films, Demme must have taken the other director's next statement as a high compliment. "We are just professional men who know to handle cinema," Herzog said. "That's what makes us what we are."
Demme did slip up once, however, when raising the topic of Herzog's isolated childhood high in the mountains and far away from the movies, which he didn't encounter until late in his teenage years. Demme identified Herzog as a German, and Herzog corrected him. He was raised in Bavaria. "I'd like to make that distinction," Herzog said. "A Scotsman wouldn't agree that he's British. I don't like the Germans."
Encounters at the End of the World opens today in limited release.
Top: Jonathan Demme and Werner Herzog in conversation at the Times Center on Thursday night.