By James Mottram

“A friend of mine, Nick Raslan, who I produced Rescue Dawn with, was very important in this production,” director, Werner Herzog, explains of the origins of his latest film, Queen Of The Desert. “He saved Rescue Dawn when the finances weren’t really in order, and since then, I’ve respected him deeply. He came to me one day and said, ‘You have to make a film about Gertrude Bell.’ And I said, ‘Who is she?’ An hour later, he brought me piles of letters and diaries. Within an hour, I knew that this was really big, and it came at me with great vehemence…the voice of Gertrude Bell was audible in her letters. I had to make this film. I didn’t even realise that this would be my first feature film with a female protagonist. It never occurred to me; it was very natural and easy. Later, people said to me, ‘Oh, it’s your first film with a female protagonist.’ And I would look around and say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, and I probably should have done it much earlier in my life.’ I’m good with directing women.”

In Queen Of The Desert, the woman that he’s directing in the title role is none other than Nicole Kidman, in what is a major departure for the notoriously eccentric filmmaker. Famed for his torturous cinematic labours of love (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God); his tours into the truly bizarre (Bad Lieutenant, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done); and a host of astounding documentaries (Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters At The End Of The World, Into The Abyss, Grizzly Man), Queen Of The Desert represents a shift into the mainstream for Werner Herzog. As close to a traditional biopic as the remarkably spry 73-year-old would ever deliver, the film tells of the real life Gertrude Bell, a traveller, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer, and political attaché for the British Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century, who trekked extensively through The Middle East. A brave and pioneering spirit, Bell had tumultuous relationships with a young diplomat (James Franco) and a British military hero (Damian Lewis), before working with T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) to change the political landscape of The Middle East.

Robert Pattinson, Nicole Kidman and Werner Herzog on set
Robert Pattinson, Nicole Kidman and Werner Herzog on set

How did Herzog pick his impressive cast? “When it became clear that Nicole Kidman was going to be the protagonist, what do I want? Chemistry,” he responds. “It’s chemistry, nothing else. It doesn’t matter if you have a big name, or a big star in the world, the real important thing is the electricity generated between them. I have seen films where you have two great stars, some of the greatest in the world, and they do not fit together. And the film ends up as a still-born baby. You have to understand what creates texture. How does it function between Nicole Kidman and James Franco? How does it function with Damian Lewis and Nicole Kidman? You have to understand it as a director. If you do not understand it, stay away from this work.”

Speaking of chemistry, the true life figure of T.E. Lawrence was, of course, most famously and magisterially played by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s epic 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence Of Arabia. “We should keep David Lean out of it because it’s very hard to compare the films,” Herzog says. “I knew that this was going to be a film about longing, and the space and the poetry of solitude and longing. It also has to do with two tragic and very deep love stories. Yes, I wanted to deal with that, but I wanted to be more than just an accountant of history. You can very easily end up being an accountant, but I’m a movie maker, and that was clearly understood by everyone involved. The film has many romantic qualities, which to my own surprise, came very easily to me. I didn’t care whether people thought that I was only about male characters like Aguirre. It’s a part of what I do, and what I love. It came very easily to me.”

When asked if Queen Of The Desert is in fact a feminist movie, Herzog is characteristically idiosyncratic in response. “Feminism is something complex, because you had various schools and evolutions of feminism in the last 40-50 years,” the director says. “It had conflicting courses, and conflicting political streams. Deep in my heart, I could say, ‘Yes, I’m a feminist’ because I love women and I respect them as deeply as I can. I keep thinking what a horrifying world it would be if it didn’t have women. It would be worthless to live if there were no women around. That’s my part of feminism. But the danger is that you make a cheap film about feminism, or you make a cheap film about politics. The life of a man is always a struggle as well. So I wouldn’t reserve the concept of struggle for women alone. But of course, this film is set at a time when women could not even vote. And at Oxford University, the young female students had to turn their face towards a wall so that the male students wouldn’t be distracted. That’s what happened, and that’s the basis upon which Gertrude Bell evolved and expanded into a female figure that we have not seen in centuries.”

Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman on set
Werner Herzog and Nicole Kidman on set

Though more traditional in design than most of his previous features, Queen Of The Desert certainly shares Herzog’s love, respect, admiration, and fear of the environment, and how cruel and unusual surrounds can shape his characters. Like the jungles of Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, and Rescue Dawn, the desert in his latest film almost becomes a character in itself. “I have crossed The Sahara Desert twice in my life,” he says. “It silences everything that is unimportant. I crossed The Sahara the first time with three men, and there’s silence amongst men. You do not speak any more. There’s no small talk. It’s only the essence that comes out in humans. The feeling of space, the feeling of silence, the feeling of solitude…there are many facets to it. The nights in the desert are incredible. You have the dome of stars, and they’re so articulate and so close. You’re waking up in the middle of the night, in the sand, and you look at the sky and you have the feeling that you can reach out and harvest the stars. That’s my experience, and that’s what I tried to get across in the film.”

Herzog’s placement of Gertrude Bell within that desert landscape was his first means of removing his film from the constraints of history. “I had to immerse her, because the landscape is a part of her soul,” the director explains. “It’s not a background. It’s an inner landscape, and an inner part of her. And of course it comes to very simple things, like costumes, for example. The costume designer immediately came to me with photos of Gertrude Bell in these terrible clothes. And I said, ‘For god’s sake, not this.’ She had hats worse than The Royal British Family would wear. And I said, ‘No, no, no, let’s take away these photos! We have to invent her. This is our invention of Gertrude Bell; let’s disconnect her. We’re not accountants of history.’ I systematically steered things away into cinema. We are a movie, and we are not giving you a hat which is an exact replica of an awful hat that Gertrude Bell wore. Get away from it!”

So, Herzog is not inverting the clichés of historical biopics? “I’m not interested in playing with clichés,” the director replies. “I am doing a film with a great actress about a great woman who has been neglected in our consciousness. She has been overshadowed by Lawrence Of Arabia, who was a self-promoter to a large degree with his own hagiographer. And of course we have David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia. History has somehow overshadowed Gertrude Bell, but all of a sudden, here emerges a figure that has great beauty, great depth, and great insight into the entire situation, probably more than Lawrence Of Arabia.”

And as he helps audiences rediscover – or indeed, just discover – Gertrude Bell, is the act of discovery in the cinemas still possible for a veteran like Werner Herzog? “I do it every day,” the filmmaker smiles. “That’s what I do.”

Queen Of The Desert is released in cinemas on June 2.


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