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New Thinking.

The visions of Werner Herzog

In creating wild and strange new worlds, the German film-maker reveals the truth of our own.

By John Gray

The reading list set by Werner Herzog for the Rogue Film School he founded in 2009 makes interesting reading in its own right. Three books were required for all attendees: Virgil’s Georgics, Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and JA Baker’s The Peregrine. Suggested reading comprised The Warren Commission Report, The Poetic Edda and Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.

Herzog made clear that his school would teach “nothing technical related to film-making”. Instead, it would ask, “How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth?” Other topics would include, “The art of lock-picking. Travelling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully.” Certain subjects would be banned. “There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries, and Inner Growth.” Consisting of weekend seminars held by Herzog at infrequent intervals at varying locations for a maximum of 65 attendees, the school “would be about a way of life… poetry, films, music, images, literature”.

The most intriguing book on Herzog’s list is The Peregrine. First appearing in 1967, it records in diary form the author’s pursuit of peregrine falcons across the Essex fenlands near Chelmsford – where the hitherto unpublished writer had lived all his life – through October 1962 to April 1963. Baker had little interest in ornithology or falconry. His goal was more esoteric. Longing to be “part of the outward life, to be out there on the edge of things, to wash away the human taint in emptiness and silence”, he wanted to become one of the birds he watched, and at moments it seemed he did:

We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

Asked why he made Baker’s book mandatory reading for film students, Herzog explained in an interview:

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In a way, it’s almost like a transubstantiation – like in religion – where the observer becomes almost the object – the falcon [that] he observes… This is what I do when I make a film: I step outside myself into an ektasis, in Greek:“to step outside your own body, a point outside”. He steps into the falcon in an ecstasy of observing the world that is unprecedented.

Stepping outside a conventional human identity to achieve an ecstatic vision is the ruling passion that runs through this astonishing book. Translated by Michael Hofmann, Herzog’s memoir invites comparison with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, published in 1782, four years after the author’s death – though it is a better written and markedly more enigmatic text than Rousseau’s scandalously revealing Confessions.

Herzog’s recurring theme is the unimportance of personhood, a social fiction he believes obscures a more numinous and primal individuality. He is almost absent from this exercise in self-recollection. Herzog was born in Munich in 1942, and his early years were passed, often cold and hungry, in a house without heat or running water, after his family fled into the mountains during the war. We are told he has had three wives and three children but not much of their lives is disclosed. There are scant details of his everyday doings. He has “trouble describing myself because I have a vexed relationship with mirrors… To this day, I couldn’t tell you what colour my eyes are. Introspection, navel-gazing, is not my thing.” He has no time for psychotherapy:

I’d rather die than go to an analyst, because it’s my view that something fundamentally wrong happens there. If you harshly light every last corner of a house, the house will be uninhabitable. It’s like that with your soul; if you light it up, shadows and darkness and all, people will become “uninhabitable”. I’m convinced that it’s psychoanalysis – along with a few other mistakes – that has made the 20th century so terrible.

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Herzog’s horror of introspection provides a clue to his purpose in the book, which is a sustained put-down of Socrates’s maxim that an unexamined life is not worth living. He has followed a different Socratic path, led by his daimon, a unique tutelary spirit, existing somewhere between the world of the gods and that of mortals, which in Greek mythology was allotted to each human being at birth. But whereas the philosopher, according to Plato, asserted that his daimon only warned him against certain actions and never told him what to do, Herzog’s has often guided him into extreme situations. “Many things in my life,” he writes, “look to me like a high-wire act, even though most of the time I don’t even notice there are abysses on either side of me.”

When threatened with death by his volatile friend Klaus Kinski while filming Aguirre (1972), Herzog responded with a death threat of his own. “If he took a boat, if he left, he’d be shot,” he recalled in a Guardian interview in 2000. “I knew I would have done it.” He documented his turbulent relationship with Kinski in his film My Best Fiend (1999). Making Fitzcarraldo (1982), with Kinski playing a tycoon who transports a steamship over the Amazon jungle as part of a madcap scheme to build an opera house, involved several near-death experiences. Bitten by a snake, one crew member had to amputate his own foot in order to avoid dying of the venom. Another survived a plane crash, but only as a paraplegic. During an interview on a Los Angeles hillside with Mark Kermode promoting Grizzly Man (2005) – the story of a nature-lover and his girlfriend killed by a wild bear he thought he could tame – Herzog calmly continued talking after being hit by a shot from an unidentified air rifle.

The world in which Herzog moves is wild and extravagantly strange. In the shoot for Echoes from a Sombre Empire (1990), his film about the Central African dictator and emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa (1921-1996), Herzog tells us he was in a walk-in freezer unit where French paratroopers found half of Bokassa’s minister of the interior – “or it may have been some other politician” – hanging by his heel “the way half a carcass of pork is frozen”. The other half, he goes on, had been served at an imperial banquet. The chef, who testified at the trial in which the emperor was sentenced to death, claimed the minister’s severed hand had been twitching when he served it at the meal.

(Bokassa’s sentence was commuted to lifetime solitary confinement in prison. Released in a general amnesty, he declared himself the Thirteenth Apostle; the Vatican dismissed his claim, and not long after he died of a heart attack.)

The emperor’s coronation, staged 11 years after the military coup in which he came to power, was a remake of Napoleon’s, featuring a North Korean army band playing Viennese waltzes in a specially built arena that resembled Versailles. Attempting to film the “still-intact steel underpinning of the throne”, Herzog was arrested by soldiers, released and again arrested, then taken to see the incumbent interior minister. “Things weren’t looking too rosy, and I decided to wrap up the filming.”

Some readers may question the veracity of these stories, but Herzog has anticipated this reaction. He quotes the French novelist André Gide: “I alter facts in such a way that they resemble truth more than reality.” A purely factual account of things confines us to what we think we can see. An imagined world, on the other hand, may point to what lies outside our heads.

In conversation with the Polish journalist and traveller Ryszard Kapuściński, Herzog imagined a world – “which [Kapuściński] had seen in whole and I in part” – where hotel elevators no longer functioned and water collected in their shafts; where traffic jams lasted a week and airports could be reached only on foot; where you needed a wheelbarrow of banknotes to buy a chicken and water was sold from tanker trucks to the highest bidder; where drunken soldiers shot cabinet members tied to posts, continually missing until finally they hit them in the knee or some other random spot, so that after an hour they were all dead. The film Herzog planned with Kapuściński, which remained unmade, would have recorded a world “that didn’t need to be imagined, just observed, because it had already existed for ages… A world in which no one had any interest in reading or information except the crudest conspiracy theories.” Our world, in other words.

Herzog’s novella The Twilight World (2021), also translated by Michael Hofmann, is prefaced by a disclaimer: “Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.”

The story and its protagonist are real enough. The last Japanese soldier to surrender in the Pacific War, Hiroo Onoda fought on in the Philippines jungle for 29 years after peace was declared in 1945, dismissing messages telling him the war had ended. Near the close of his solitary campaign, he had become “an ambulating part of the jungle”. But he is not allowed to be simply a part of nature. “He harbours two natures… He is part and apart.” The jungle is itself changed. “Through him the jungle is to become more than a jungle, a landscape with a nimbus of sudden demise.”

After he surrendered and handed over his sword to a Philippine general in 1974, Onoda returned to Japan. Disgusted by the culture of materialism he found in the country, he left to join his brother, who had cleared the jungle in a remote part of Brazil to start a cattle ranch. Each year Onoda returned to Japan to teach at a private school he established to instruct children in survival techniques. He died in Tokyo at the age of 91.

In The Peregrine, Baker describes robins singing in a wood near a river, their song “like the tinkling of a harpsichord”. A bullfinch squatting on a sagging larch twig bites off a bud with a delicate snip, and chews it ruminatively. The twist of his bill to break off the bud reminded the author of a peregrine breaking the neck of its prey. “Whatever is destroyed, the act of destruction does not vary much. Beauty is vapour from the pit of death.”

The sentence could be an epigraph for Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Regaling stories that sometimes seem beyond credibility, Herzog does not claim to be offering a literal rendition of the events of his life. “Truth comes with hidden codes, or else the codes are unpredictably enriched with reality, like the veins of ore in rock.”

His memoir should be read for what it is: a visionary masterpiece that speaks, as did the ancient Greek daimon, of the world of mortals and the regions that seem to lie beyond.

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[See also: When is an empire not an empire]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special