Ecstatic Truth

An exhibition documenting Werner Herzog 'documenting,' along with a series of conversations about the filmmaker's life and work


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Artistic legacies
  • Pedagogy
  • Performance

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Cinema Studies at Penn


Timothy Corrigan, Nicola M. Gentili, Aaron Levy


Paul Holdengräber, Nathaniel Kahn, and Karen Beckman


Jerry and Emily Spiegel Funds in Fine Arts, Cinema Studies program, Department of English, and the Department of German at the University of Pennsylvania


International House of Philadelphia

Opens to public



4017 Walnut
Philadelphia, PA 19104


75% Formal - 25% Informal

Slought and Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania are pleased to announce a series of public programs exploring the work of filmmaker Werner Herzog. These programs have been organized alongside "Ecstatic Truth: Documenting Herzog 'Documenting,'" an exhibition featuring work by Werner Herzog, accompanied by images of the filmmaker by photographer Beat Presser. On display at Slought from October 22 through November 15, 2007, the exhibition will include manifestos, films, and photographs that engage Herzog's continued explorations of "ecstatic truth" and the boundary between fiction and documentary practice.

The first conversation, "Walking on Ice: Werner Herzog's Metaphysics of Filmmaking," features Timothy Corrigan, Thomas Y. Levin, Heidi Schlipphacke, and Alan Singer in a conversation introduced by Karen Beckman. This will take place on Monday, October 22, 2007 from 6:30-8:00pm at Slought.

The second conversation, "On the Ecstasy of Ski-Flying," features Karen Beckman in conversation with Werner Herzog on Thursday, October 25, 2007 from 7:30-8:30pm.

From Herzog on Herzog (2002), by Werner Herzog:

"In my 'documentaries' I have constantly explored the intensified truths of the situations that I have found myself in and of the characters I have met, whether it be abused people who lose their speech in Lessons of Darkness or the chain-smoking African chimp of Echoes from a Sombre Empire. [...] The real Fitzcarraldo moved a far lighter boat from one river system to the next, but he disassembled the boat into little pieces and got some engineers to reassemble it later on. But for what we did there was no precedent in technical history, and no book of instructions we could refer to. And you know, probably no one will ever need to do again what we did. I am a Conquistador of the Useless." (241/179)

"We are immediately in the realm of poetry -- whether or not the audience knows the quote is a fake -- which inevitably strikes a more profound chord than mere reportage. With Pascal you are immersed in the cosmic even before the first picture appears on the screen, and Lessons of Darkness never lets you down until its last frame. It holds you up there without shame, something I do with real pride and with the confidence that I am not manipulating the audience in any way. Pascal himself could not have written it better! After the quote the film continues with the voice-over talking of 'Wide mountain ranges, the valleys enshrouded in mist.' What I actually filmed were little heaps of dust and soil created by the tires of trucks. These 'mountain ranges' were no more than a foot high. I keep telling young people who always ask with hesitation in their voice about history and concoction and invention that this is what cinema is about." (243)

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Werner Herzog, one of the most influential filmmakers in New German Cinema, was born in Munich in 1942. Herzog has gained notoriety not only for his fantastic narratives but also for pushing himself and his crew to unprecedented lengths in order to achieve the effects he demanded. He has produced, written, and directed more than forty films, published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas.

Herzog's works explore the boundary between fiction and documentary practice, and aim for "ecstatic truth" in the form of an event-based dynamic and "the feeling of being an observer dragged into the scene." In lieu of a filmography, Slought is pleased to reproduce below Herzog's "Minnesota declaration," a series of principles outlining his practice, originally presented in a 1999 appearance at the Walker Art Center on the occasion of a 14-film retrospective at that museum.

Beat Presser, a Basel-based photographer, has collaborated closely with the German filmmaker Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski since 1980, as still photographer for notable films such as Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Invincible. His works have been shown in many international exhibitions. In 2007-2008, "Oasis of Silence" will be on display at the Patravadi Theater in Bangkok. His photographs will also be on exhibit at the Beyeler Foundation and at the Tinguely Museum, Basel. His many catalogues and publications include Klaus Kinski-portrayed by Beat Presser (2000) and Werner Herzog (Arte Edition) (2003). For more information, beatpresser.com

Karen Beckman is Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the Director of Cinema Studies Program.

"Minnesota Declaration" /

Truth and fact in documentary cinema

Werner Herzog
Walker Art Center
Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 30, 1999

Lessons of Darkness

1) By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

2) One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. "For me," he says, "there should be only one single law; the bad guys should go to jail."

Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time.

3) Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.

4) Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.

5) There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

6) Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures of ancient ruins of facts.

7) Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.

8) Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: "You can't legislate stupidity."

9) The gauntlet is herby thrown down.

10) The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn't call, doesn't speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don't you listen to the Song of Life.

11) We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile.

12) Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

Related publications

Filmmaker Werner Herzog engages in conversation about aliens as a fixture of our imagination, the fundamental achievement of the human race, and the ecstasy of ski-flying.

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