Werner Herzog’s pilgrimage to Paris

September 28, 2019 1 Comment
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Many think Werner Herzog our greatest living film-maker.  His major fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s will always find new viewers.  Aguirre, Wrath of God, a study in conspiracy, tyranny and madness, has a claim to be one of the most powerful ever made.  Once you’ve seen it the first time, with its dense Amazonian setting, its demented performance by Klaus Kinski and its hypnotic musical score by Popol Vuh, you’ll never forget it.

Bruce Chatwin

Herzog is still making films at the age of 77, mostly shorter ‘documentaries’, the fruits of his constant wanderings around the planet.  The most recent, Nomad, shown by the BBC last week, is a tribute to his friend Bruce Chatwin (another for whom, in Herzog’s words, ‘tourism is a sin, walking a virtue’).  Documentary isn’t quite the right word, because all Herzog’s films are in part about himself.  The soundtrack features his unmistakable Bavarian voice, precise and measured, but speaking of things strange, remote, extreme.

Herzog is known for sayings that are enigmatic or paradoxical.  One of them is this: ‘I actually like the book more than my films; it is closer to my heart than all my films together, I think, because of the many compromises that filmmaking always entails’.  He’s talking about his book Of walking in ice.  Recently I’ve been rereading it.  Coincidentally it’s been the subject of the latest episode (no. 101) of the excellent podcast Backlisted, conversations about books that deserve to be reread and remembered.

Of walking in ice: Munich – Paris, 23 November – 14 December 1974 is a short work – no more than seventy pages long.  It was first published in German in 1978, and came out in an English translation by Marje Herzog and Alan Greenberg in 1980.  In his brief foreword, written in Delft in May 1978 – Delft was the main location in 1979 for Herzog’s brilliant reworking of F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu – he explains the astonishing origin of the text:

At the end of November 1974, a friend from Paris called and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die.   I said this must not be, not at this time.  German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.

Lotte Eisner with Werner Herzog

Lotte Eisner held an emblematic role in post-war German cinema.  She came from a Jewish family in Berlin and fled Germany for Paris as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933.  There she acted as a critic and archivist of German cinema, founded the Cinématèque Française, and encouraged and supported the new wave of film-makers who were creating cinema afresh out of the ashes of the disastrous Nazi years.  Herzog in particular regarded her as his mentor and guide in his early career.  ‘She gave us legitimacy’ was his verdict.  Wim Wenders dedicated his film Paris, Texas (1984) to her memory.

Pilgrimage (2001)

Herzog’s impetuous decision to walk 500 miles to Paris, in more or less a straight line, might seem inspired or it might seem quixotic, but it’s entirely characteristic of the man.  Clearly it never occurred to him to catch a plane or train.  That would not have had the intended effect.  Only a slow, effortful walk would answer the need.  This was a pilgrimage.  A strange sort of pilgrimage, one aimed at warding off death, but a pilgrimage none the less.  As in a traditional pilgrimage, Herzog felt that his must be long, laborious and even painful in order to have its full impact.  Walking offered him the certainty of all three, especially since he was setting out at the beginning of one of the fiercest winters in Europe for many years.  In addition, there was no time for planning, so Herzog left Munich with the bare minimum: boots, a jacket, a duffle bag, a compass and little else (he seems to have carried little money) – again, in line with the meagre necessities of the medieval pilgrim.  (In 2001 Herzog made a short, wordless film called Pilgrimage, with a score by John Tavener, set in Russia and Mexico.)

Werner Herzog

Herzog presents Of walking in ice as a lightly edited version of the diary of the journey he kept in ‘a little notebook’.  Like a diary it’s divided by named day, and includes summaries of the places he stays in and walks through, the weather and some of the people he encounters on the way, the pain of trudging long distances each day.  This summary, though, gives little clue to the strange nature of the writing, which reads almost as if it were transcribed direct from the thoughts revolving inside Herzog’s brain as he walks.  Often it’s hard to spot the difference between observation of the world around him and the memories, dreams and stories that occur to him as he moves.  Outer and inner eye oscillate:

Tuesday 10 December

Crystal clear weather for a while, a joyful feeling upon seeing the sun, everywhere steam: steam from the Aube as if it were boiling, steam from the fields.  When I look up to the sky while walking, without realizing I walk on a curve towards the north.  Right after the Aube, the steam from a field was so thick and so low above the ground that I waded through it shoulder-high.  Viewed far and wide, the land is almost flat.  A mangy woman chases a mangy dog out of a house.  Oh, my God, how I am cold, God make my parents old.  Burro fell from the tenth floor because the balcony had holes that didn’t belong there, and he died immediately.  The owner of the hotel, fearful for his good reputation, and recognizing the vastness of my pain, offered me nineteen thousand marks for my education.  Education for what, I said, that’s Judas’ money, that won’t revive a soul.  The road, the short cut to Piney, I had all to myself …

Nosferatu (1979)

These conversations with himself happen in what is almost always a hostile natural environment.  Just as in his films Herzog likes nothing better than to locate his characters in an extreme, unforgiving corner of the world – the Amazon jungle, the Canadian north, the coast of west Africa – here he places himself in a landscape and a season as far as possible from the stereotypical tourist picture of the summer Alps, rivers and plains of Germany and France.  Heavy mud clings to his boots, snow and rain batter him almost daily, miserable villages and their inhabitants offer him little comfort or welcome.  Here is a random extract from Saturday 30 November:

Now and then I turn my jacket pockets inside out as I would from a wet towel.  In Irstingen there is a wedding at the tavern.  Greyness and Blackness and storm clouds oppress the country.  The snow lies wet on the fields, darkness comes, all lies barren, no village, no man, no hideout.

Grizzly man (2005)

The pathetic fallacy is unknown to Herzog.  ‘We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile’, he once wrote.  His film Grizzly man (2005) about Timothy Treadwell, eaten by a bear, shows the folly of believing in the fellow-feeling of large animals.  Nature is raw, uncaring, indifferent to humans.  Even the humans Herzog meets on his journey offer little comfort.  They tend to be suspicious of him.  There’s little wonder in this, since he’s unwashed, unshaven and increasingly ragged.  He also has a habit of breaking into people’s houses, barns and caravans when he needs shelter for the night (only occasionally does he resorts to a tavern).  Loneliness is probably the commonest emotion he feels: a desperate alienation from the people around him, and their land.  But being alone has its positive side: ‘Is the Loneliness good?  Yes, it is.  There are only dramatic vistas ahead.’  There are moments of ecstasy, a feeling familiar to most long-distance walkers.  The entry for Wednesday 4 December begins:

An immaculately clear, cool morning.  Everything is hazy on the plain, but one can hear life down there.  The mountains, full and distinct in front of me, some elevated fog and, in between, a cool daytime moon, only half visible, opposite the sun.  I walk straight between sun and moon.  How exhilarating.  Vineyards, sparrows, everything’s so fresh.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the sea of fog (c1818)

The lone traveller, afoot in nature, of course, has a long history in German literature and music, and Herzog’s work seems to fit within that tradition, as it grew from the early Romantic period.  Obvious examples are Heinrich Heine’s Harz journey (1824) and Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (1828).  But Herzog is different.  He has nothing to do with broken hearts or suicide, and his romantic narrative is undermined from time to time by humour.  He’s said that he doesn’t ‘do irony’, but he has a keen sense of absurdity, including his own absurdity.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski on set

As I walk the word ‘millet’, which I always liked so much, just won’t leave my mind, the word ‘lusty’ as well.  Finding a connection between the two words becomes torture.  To walk lustily works, and to reap millet with a sickle also works.  But millet and lusty together doesn’t work.  A dense woodland unfailingly comes to pass.  Atop a peak of a mountain pass two trucks converge, the cockpits coming so close that one driver can climb over to the other one without touching the ground.  Together, never speaking a word to each other, they eat their lunch.  They’ve been doing this for twelve years, always on the same route, always at the same place, the words are exhausted but the food can be bought.

On Saturday 14 December Herzog reaches central Paris, and Lotte Eisner.  She’s still alive, though ‘still tired and marked by her illness’.  The entry, and the book, end with these words:

Then she looked at me and smiled very delicately, and since she knew that I was someone on foot and therefore unprotected, she understood me.  For one splendid fleeting moment something mellow flowed through my deadly tired body.  I said to her, open the window, from these last days onward I can fly.

In fact Lotte Eisner lived for another nine years.  It’s said that finally she had to summon Herzog and ask him to release her from his spell, his embargo on her dying.

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  1. I met him. Just the once, in Vienna. I was working on a production called ‘Flic Flac’ for the Vienna Festival. The director was the poet Andre Heller. Heller’s assistant, Sigi, who’d been dispatched by him to London to seek a choreographer to replace the one he’d decided was unsuitable, had returned with me. I was in at the deep end. Rehearsals had already begun. Heller was oblique, speaking softly and explaining things so enigmatically that working with him was like being an interpreter of mysteries. Preparations were chaotic, carried out in many venues around the city. Every day a different place. Performers had been gathered internationally. It was like Babel. The premiere was ‘an event’. I was handed a chimpanzee to be my companion. Heller had a Felliniesque liking for being surrounded by strangenesses and oddities. Sigi explained that she’d seated to me next to her brother for the performance as she though we’d get on. That’s how I came to sit next to Werner Hertzog at the 1981 Vienna Festival premiere of ‘Flic Flac’, with a chimpanzee.

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