Werner Herzog: Documentaries and Shorts, 1962–1999
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.