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Herzog and His Heroes

Rescue Dawn

a film written and directed by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog: Documentaries and Shorts, 1962–1999

Werner Herzog Film, 6 DVDs, $150.00

Herzog (Non)Fiction

a film series at Film Forum, New York, May 18–June 7, 2007


In her memoir about Bruce Chatwin, Susannah Clapp tells the following story. Not long before his death, already very ill, Chatwin was receiving guests in his room at the Ritz in London. Many of them left with a gift. One friend was given a small jagged object which Chatwin identified as a subincision knife, used to slit the urethra in an Aboriginal initiation rite. He had found it in the Australian bush, he said, with his connoisseur’s eye: “It’s obviously made from some sort of desert opal. It’s a wonderful color, almost the color of chartreuse.” Not long after, the director of the Australian National Gallery spotted the object in the grateful recipient’s house. He held it up to the light and muttered: “Hmmm. Amazing what the Abos can do with a bit of an old beer bottle.”1

Chatwin had the gift of polishing reality like Aladdin’s lamp to produce stories of deep and alluring mystery. He was a myth-maker, a fabulist who could turn the most banal facts into poetry. To question the veracity of his stories is to miss the point. He was neither a reporter nor a scholar, but a raconteur of the highest order. The beauty of this type of writing lies in the perfect metaphor that appears to illuminate what lies under the factual surface. Another master of the genre was Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish literary chronicler of third-world tyrannies and coups. One entire book of his, The Emperor, a poetic rendering of life in the court of Haile Selassie, is often read as a metaphor for Poland under communism—an interpretation always denied by the author himself.

The German film director Werner Herzog was a friend of Chatwin’s as well as Kapuściński. He made a film—by no means his best—of one of Chatwin’s books, entitled Cobra Verde,2 about a half-crazed Brazilian slave-trader in West Africa, played by a half-crazed Klaus Kinski. The match was a natural one, for Herzog, too, shares the gift of the great fabulators. In his many interviews—remarkably many for a man who says he would prefer to work anonymously, like a medieval artisan—Herzog often compares himself to the Moroccan spellbinders who tell stories in the marketplace of Marrakech. As was true of Chatwin and Kapuściński, Herzog feels a great affinity with what a friend of mine, much at home in Africa himself and quite critical of Kapuściński, has called “tropical baroque”—remote desert countries or dense Amazonian jungles.3 Like them, Herzog—modestly of course, as if it’s really of no great consequence—likes to tell tales of his own frightful hardships and narrowly missed catastrophes: filthy African jails, deadly floods in Peru, rampaging bulls in Mexico. In a filmed BBC interview shot in Los Angeles, Herzog, in his deep, mesmerizing voice, is just explaining how in Germany nobody appreciates his films anymore, when you hear a loud crack. Herzog doubles over. He’s been shot by an air rifle just above his floral underpants, leaving a nasty wound. “It’s of no significance,” he says in his deadpan Bavarian drone. “It doesn’t surprise me to get shot at.”4 This is such a Herzogian moment that you would almost suspect that he directed the whole thing himself.

The suspicion is not entirely frivolous, for Herzog not only expresses no interest in literal truth; he despises it. Cinéma vérité, the art of catching truth on the run with an often hand-held camera, he dismisses as “the accountant’s truth.” While Ryszard Kapuscinski always maintained that he was a reporter, and denied making things up for poetic or metaphorical effect, Herzog is quite open about inventing scenes in his documentary films, for which he is justly famous. In fact, he doesn’t recognize a distinction between his documentaries and his fiction films. As he told Paul Cronin in the excellent book Herzog on Herzog5: “Even though they are usually labeled as such, I would say that it is misleading to call films like Bells from the Deep and Death for Five Voices ‘documentaries.’ They merely come under the guise of documentaries.” And Fitzcarraldo, a fiction film about a late-nineteenth-century rubber baron (played by Klaus Kinski) who dreams of building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle and has a ship pulled across a mountain, has been described by Herzog as his most successful documentary.

The opposite of “accountant’s truth” for Herzog is “ecstatic truth.” In a recent appearance at the New York Public Library he explained: “I’m after something that is more like an ecstasy of truth, something where we step beyond ourselves, something that happens in religion sometimes, like medieval mystics.”6 He achieves this to wonderful effect in Bells from the Deep, a film about faith and superstition in Russia—Jesus figures in Siberia and the like, another fascination he shared with Chatwin. The movie opens with an extraordinary, hallucinatory image of people crawling on the surface of a frozen lake, peering through the ice, as though in prayer to some unseen god. In fact, as Herzog narrates, they are looking for a great lost city called Kitezh that lies buried under the ice of this bottomless lake. The city had been sacked long ago by Tartar invaders, but God sent an archangel to redeem the inhabitants by letting them live on in deep underwater bliss, chanting hymns and tolling bells.

The legend exists and the image is hauntingly beautiful. It is also entirely fake. Herzog rounded up a few drunks at a local village bar and paid them to lie on the ice. As he tells the story: “One of them has his face right on the ice and looks like he is in very deep meditation. The accountant’s truth: he was completely drunk and fell asleep, and we had to wake him at the end of the take.” Was it cheating? No, says Herzog, because “only through invention and fabrication and staging can you reach a more intense level of truth that cannot otherwise be found.”

This is exactly what admirers of Chatwin say. And I must confess to being one of them. But not without some feeling of ambivalence. The power of the image is surely enhanced by the belief that these are real pilgrims and not drunks who are paid to impersonate pilgrims. If a film, or book, is presented as being factually accurate, there has to be a certain degree of trust in veracity which is not quite the same as the suspension of disbelief. Once you know the real unembellished story, some of the magic is lost, at least to me. And yet the genius of Herzog as a cinematic spellbinder is such that his documentaries work even as fiction. In defense of his peculiar style, it might be said that he uses invention not to falsify truth, but to sharpen it, enhance it, make it more vivid. One of his favorite tricks is to invent dreams for his characters, or visions they never had, which nonetheless ring true, because they are in keeping with the characters. His subjects are always people with whom he feels a personal affinity. In a way the main characters in his films, feature and documentary, are all variations of Herzog himself.

Born in Munich during the war, Herzog grew up in a remote village in the Bavarian Alps, without access to telephones or movies. As a child he dreamed of becoming a ski jumper. Defying gravity, trying to fly, on skis, in balloons, in jet planes, is a recurring theme in his films. He loves Fred Astaire for that reason, airborne in his dancing shoes. And he made a documentary in 1974, entitled The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, about an Austrian ski jumper. Steiner is a typical Herzogian character, a monomaniacal loner, pushing himself to the limits, mastering the fear of death and isolation. Steiner is, in Herzog’s words, “a close brother of Fitzcarraldo, a man who also defies the laws of gravity by pulling a ship over a mountain.”

In 1971, Herzog made one of his most astonishing documentaries about another form of solitude, the most extreme form, of people trapped in the isolation of their blindness and deafness. The main character in Land of Silence and Darkness is a middle-aged German woman of tremendous courage, named Fini Straubinger, who can communicate only by tapping a kind of braille on another person’s hand. Since she went blind after an accident in her teens, she still had visual memories, the most vivid of which, she recalls, was the look of ecstasy on the faces of ski jumpers as they soared through the sky. In fact, Fini Straubinger had never seen a ski jumper. Herzog wrote those lines for her, because he thought this “was a great image to represent Fini’s own inner state and solitude.”

Does this diminish the film, or distort the truth about Fini Straubinger, even though she agreed to speak those lines? It is hard to give an unequivocal answer. Yes, it is a distortion, because it is invented. But it does not diminish the film, because Herzog manages to make it look plausible. We can never really know the inner life of Fini Straubinger, or anyone else’s, for that matter. What Herzog does is imagine her inner life. The ski jumper story is part of how he sees Fini Straubinger. It illuminates her character for him. That is another kind of truth, the portraitist’s truth.

Herzog likes to think of himself as an artistic outsider, out on a dangerous edge, flying alone, as it were. In many ways, however, he is mining a rich tradition. The yearning for ecstasy, man alone in wild nature, deeper truths, medieval mystics, all this smacks of nineteenth-century Romanticism. Herzog’s frequent use of Richard Wagner’s music (in Lessons of Darkness, for example, his film about the burning oil wells of Kuwait after the first Gulf war), as well as his often professed love of Hölderlin’s poetry, suggests that he is quite aware of this affinity. His loathing of “technological civilization,” and his idealization of nomadism and ways of life as yet untouched by our blighted civilization, are of a piece with this. He can be quite moralistic, even puritanical. “Tourism is sin,” he announced in his so-called Minnesota Declaration of 1999, and “walking is a virtue.”7 The twentieth century, with its “consumer culture,” was a “massive, colossal and cataclysmic mistake.” Meditating Tibetan monks, he claimed at his Goethe Institute talk, are good, but meditating Californian housewives “an abomination.” Why? He didn’t say. One imagines it is because he considered the housewives inauthentic, not true believers, only in it for the lifestyle.

As with many Romantic artists, landscape is an important element in Herzog’s work, and part of his striving for a kind of visionary authenticity. Few directors match his skill in depicting the fertile horror of the jungle, the terrifying bleakness of deserts, or the awful majesty of high mountains. He never uses landscapes as backdrops. Landscape has character. About the jungle he has remarked that it “is really about our dreams, our deepest emotions, our nightmares. It is not a location, but a state of our mind. It has almost human qualities. It is a vital part of the characters’ inner landscapes.” Caspar David Friedrich, an artist Herzog admires, never painted the jungle, but this description could easily be applied to his pictures of lone figures gazing at the stormy Baltic Sea or standing above the clouds on snowy peaks. Friedrich saw landscape as a manifestation of God. Herzog, who went through a “dramatic religious phase” and converted to Catholicism as a teenager, sees “something of a religious echo in some of my work.”

  1. 1

    With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997).

  2. 2

    The original novel was called The Viceroy of Ouidah.

  3. 3

    John Ryle, academic, Africanist, writer.

  4. 4

    The scene can be viewed on YouTube. The shooter fled and Herzog told the BBC producers to let him go.

  5. 5

    Faber and Faber, 2002.

  6. 6

    Werner Herzog in conversation with Paul Holdengräber, “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?,” New York Public Library, February 16, 2007.

  7. 7

    Traveling on foot was also one of Chatwin’s enthusiasms. He bequeathed his custom-made leather rucksack to Herzog.

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