Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema
Skip to main content
Crosscuts

Werner Herzog Reads His Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema

On April 30, 1999, filmmaker Werner Herzog visited the Walker Art Center to conclude a monthlong retrospective of his films with a public dialogue with critic Roger Ebert. But before the conversation began, Herzog walked to center stage, alone, and addressed the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, before we start this dialogue, I would like to make a statement. It is something that I have reflected upon for many years in the frustration of seeing so many documentary films. […] There’s something ultimately and deeply wrong about the concept of what constitutes fact and what constitutes truth in documentaries in particular.” He then read a list of 12 principles—one he’d expand upon 18 years later in a six-point addendum—dubbed the Minnesota Declaration. Reprinted, quoted, and debated again and again by film scholars and enthusiasts alike in the years since, the manifesto has proven historic: as Ebert later wrote, “For the first time,  it fully explained his theory of ‘ecstatic truth.’”

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.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.