When you Google ‘werner herzog chickens’, a surprising number of articles show up. I am a recent fan of chickens, and when I spoke about this to my friends, one kind friend directed me to this film. It is a short film – only 40 seconds long, directed by Siri Bunford and shot by Tom Stretihorst. In the film, Herzog is being interviewed regarding his opinions on chickens. He’s seated in an armchair covered in faded flowers. Behind him, on a dresser, is what appears to be a giant taxidermied rabbit. To his left is a table, on which calmly rests Herzog’s cup of tea. The table also holds a giant bell jar that contains a small lion and some even smaller palm trees.1
The film starts with Herzog discussing the intelligence of chickens: “The enormity of their flat brains, the enormity of their stupidity, is just overwhelming.” I won’t give the rest of the film away. I would like to quote the dialogue in its entirety, but really I have already quoted the dialogue from the first 19 seconds, which is almost half the film. In the middle of the film, Herzog uses some intense facial expressions and hand gestures. To conclude, he alludes to one or two of his films, neither of them by name.2
Then, ten months ago, Herzog, along with Errol Morris and Joshua Oppenheimer, opened themselves to questions on Reddit for an AMA regarding their film The Act of Killing:
User iliketokilldeer brought up Herzog’s opinion on chickens. Herzog replied, “With a chicken on your plate, and a good stein of beer in your fist, the world starts to look better.” Oppenheimer then piped up, “Werner is Bavarian. I would note: chickens are living manifestations of death, bred only to be domesticated and killed. When we look into their eyes, we see the part of ourselves of which we are most afraid – our ultimate destination. Death.” Herzog’s response received 350 points on Reddit. Oppenheimer’s received 341 points. Later in the thread, user jdb888 asks the question on everyone’s mind, “Werner, why do you hate chickens?” His question received only 22 points. Herzog replied, “Not in all forms. I like them Kentucky Fried”, receiving 165 points.
Sam Brasch, writing for the website Modern Farmer, has speculated on Herzog’s complex relationship with chickens. He writes, “In truth, Herzog’s relationship with the chicken race is anything but clear cut.” He refers to the closing scene of Stroszek, Herzog’s 1977 film, where the protagonist observes a series of dancing chickens at theme park. On this point, I disagree with Brasch. However, I would like to point out that Modern Farmer describes itself as a website ‘for people who have chickens, people who want to have chickens and anyone who wants to know more about how food reaches their plate.’ Hence, Brasch, as a chicken lover, may be in denial about the fact that Herzog clearly hates chickens, thinking them stupid and only good enough to fry and eat. Certainly, Herzog uses chickens in his films, but he deploys them as metaphors for the futility of our existence, and this is hardly a flattering comparison.
Indeed, Herzog is admired for his hatred of chickens. In the foreword to Paul Cronin’s Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (2014), a collection of conversations between Cronin and Herzog, Harmony Korine writes (without using any capital letters): “werner herzog hates chickens. this is a fact. this is a consistent theme throughout his films. it is clear to me that he hates chickens, and this is one of the reasons why he has always been my favourite film director. i too hate chickens.” and later, “herzog is a true icon of cinema. he is a foot solider. he is not a chicken.” Korine would clearly disagree with Brasch’s opinion that Herzog’s relationship with chickens is anything more complex than pure, unadulterated hatred. Korine even believes that chicken-hating is a “consistent theme” throughout Herzog’s films, although he fails to reference any specific films. From this foreword, we can conclude that Korine believes that Herzog hates chickens, and that Korine also hates chickens, and that Korine adores Herzog and that part of this adoration stems from their mutual hatred of chickens.
I would like to end this piece by returning to Bunford’s film. Hardly anything intelligent has been said about Herzog’s opinion on chickens. Indeed, let us consider the six people who have so far participated in the dialogue: Bunford, Korine, Oppenheimer, iliketokilldeer, jdb888 and Brasch (who may have a conflict of interest in the matter). In my opinion, Korine’s take on the matter is less sophisticated than iliketokilldeer’s, because at least iliketokilldeer acknowledges his ignorance on the matter and seeks clarification from Herzog himself. This is not that surprising, since iliketokilldeer is also more adroit than Korine at using punctuation.
But Bunford’s film does so much more than contribute to the ever-evolving dialogue on Herzog and chickens. It is a wonderful film because it contrasts so starkly with Herzog’s own films and his portrayal of nature. In Les Blank’s film Burden of Dreams, which documents the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Herzog says of nature, “The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain…We in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel.” Unlike the jungle, which leaves Herzog awestruck, human beings are stupid and disappointing in their grandeur. They are, in this sense, exactly like chickens. It is clever then that Bunford sets her interview with Herzog in a living room; it is a domesticated, very much human space, and it is surrounded by cheap imitations of the power of nature – the faded print of his chair, the strangely shaped taxidermied rabbit and the disproportionate savannah scape under the bell jar.
This is what chickens are to Herzog – they are embarrassing parts of the nature, faulty in the sense that they lack the power, dignity and grace of stronger animals. They are so stupid and powerless that you can hypnotise them by rubbing their bellies. And it is for this reason that Herzog loves to use chickens as a metaphor – they represent to him the most shameful and insipid elements of human nature.
In the header image, the image of the chicken was accessed from Macro Lens Mastery. You can find the original image here.