By Jeremy Carr.
Since the late 1980s, German actress Veronica Ferres has appeared in dozens of films and television productions, garnering widespread praise in the process. In recent years, she has starred in such English-language titles as Pay the Ghost (2015), with Nicholas Cage, and The Comedian (2016), with Robert De Niro.
Meanwhile, Werner Herzog, one of the seminal figures to emerge from the New German Cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, has been paving his own idiosyncratic path with an eclectic body of celebrated work. It would seem perhaps inevitable that these two would eventually join together for some sort of collaboration.
And sure enough, they did just that with Salt and Fire (2016). Though a Herzog film with a strong female lead is a relative rarity, just as Nicole Kidman appears front and center in the director’s Queen of the Desert (2015), Ferres steps into the fundamental role of Laura, the key protagonist in the acclaimed director’s latest. Acting alongside Michael Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal, Ferres plays an ecologist travelling to Bolivia in order to investigate an impending natural disaster. Her routine inquiry is quickly thwarted when she is kidnapped and left in a surprising, dire, and blindingly beautiful situation. Salt and Fire is a fascinating film, and, at times, a baffling one. In other words, it’s just as one would expect from Werner Herzog. This time, though, his unique vision is complemented by a dominant performance from one of Germany’s most admired leading ladies.
Salt and Fire has an intriguing storyline – a thriller with an environmental theme, it also has an eclectic cast and is, of course, directed by Werner Herzog. So if you can pin it down to one thing, what was it about this particular project that caught your attention?
Here in Europe I studied at university – German literature and theater – and I will never forget when I saw Fitzcarraldo [dir. Werner Herzog, 1982] for the first time. It changed my life. I had never seen such a powerful filmmaker before and such an incredible movie before. I started adoring him, admirably. I started to read one of his novels, “Of Walking in Ice” (1978), and I had this novel in my handbag when I saw him a few years ago. I wanted to go ask him for an autograph, but I was too shy. My manager said, “Go there, because you will never ever have the opportunity in your whole life to meet Werner Herzog again.” So, I walked over to him and I said, “Mr. Herzog, my name is Veronica Ferres.” He said, “I know you and I know who you are and I want to work with you.” I said, “You’re kidding!” He wrote a nice note in my book and I walked back blushing. Months later, he called me about a script he wrote and wanted me to play this part. I said, “Whatever it is, I’m in. I want to work with you.” I started to read the script and my character was there from the first page to the last page and I couldn’t stop crying for happiness. I called him the next morning and said, “Oh yeah, I want to do this.”
You’ve worked with a number of different filmmakers, in film and television, but few have the reputation, or perhaps persona is one way to put it, of Werner Herzog. Did you have any specific expectations when it came to Mr. Herzog?
I always try to have no expectations. I was very excited and incredibly happy to be able to work with him. I try to have no expectations so I’m very flexible for the director’s vision, and his vision is very strong. He does one or two or three takes for each angle that he’s shooting, so you always have to be incredibly well prepared. It was very easy to work with him.
Speaking of his vision, Mr. Herzog has often stressed the importance of location, and the settings in the latter half of Salt and Fire are quite remarkable, from the rusty train yard to the vast salt flats. Aside from these being visually striking backdrops, what do you as an actress gain from such unique and powerful settings?
There was the physical challenge, and having no contact with the rest of world for a long time during shooting. You have no reception, no Wi-Fi, no internet, you cannot get any mail. There’s nothing. It’s just you and nature. I will never forget it. Every morning for breakfast, it was just the extras, crew and the director. For dinner, it was just us there. No hotel and no other people around us.
In some of the promotion for this film, Mr. Herzog discussed his willingness to break the rules of conventional narrative. How does this work for his actors? Do you need something to cling onto for your character, something more stable or straightforward, or are you also open to experimentation in this regard?
I’m very open too, because he’s always breaking the rules. He’s never predictable. He tries different kinds of techniques and invites different languages and I love that. He is changing perspectives all the time, different levels, different points of view in the story. I like that a lot. It has a lot of poetry in it. It’s a movie you can’t compare to any other.
Just as the narrative shifts into two fairly distinct blocks, your character also takes a dramatic turn. How was it, for example, working opposite Michael Shannon, who has a very unique intensity, to then working with the two children, where it seems they have a more spontaneous presence. How do you adjust or adapt your approach to these different scenes?
You have to be very open and very sensitive to work with one of the best actors in the world – Michael Shannon – on a very high professional level. And the two kids, who are really blind, you have to deal with the fact that you have to help them with what they can’t do on their own and you have to support them. Werner always said, “Veronica, I love your emotional intelligence.” You have to have a kind of love relationship between the kids, to be a kind of mother figure. At night, you read to them, they lie on my chest, I’m hugging them, giving them warmth and trust, all while knowing that you’re probably going to die. [In the film, Laura is inexplicably left stranded with these two blind children and, for a time, the three must fend for themselves amongst the sweeping Bolivian salt flats, never knowing why they have been placed there or if a rescue is imminent.]
There seemed to be a strangely surreal tension in the film, where the interactions and exchanges felt somewhat stylized, the dialogue was somewhat mannered, and the speech patterns were deliberate and formal, maybe not the most naturalistic way of speaking. Is this something that was written in the script, was it part of the direction, or is this not something you were particularly even aware of?
It was actually part of the script. Werner’s point of view was to see the nature of science. This woman, because she’s a scientist, a professor, she is very well educated, even in a very bad situation. She knows how to us the language and she knows how to act in a very sophisticated way. She knows everything if you listen to her.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinmea, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.