Werner Herzog: Waying Mythologies

At the end of November in 1974, Werner Herzog received a telephone call from a friend in Paris telling him that his mentor and lifelong friend, the film critic Lotte Eisner, was very ill and probably dying. His immediate response was to set out on a pilgrimage. But he would walk not across the Basque country of Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, following a centuries old devotional route, but from Munich where he lived to Paris where Lotte Eisner was finishing her years. He believed, he wrote in the foreword to his small journal Of Walking in Ice (Carl Hansen Verlag, Germany 1978, Free Association, Canada, 2009) that Eisner would stay alive if he came on foot. Setting out, he would cast a connecting line between them, and so long as he moved steadily on it this lifeline would not be severed. In his mind, he would place himself between Eisner and death, which was also moving toward her. “Our Eisner mustn’t die, she will not die, I won’t permit it.”

Lotte Eisner was born in Berlin in 1896. She was noted as the first woman film critic and a proponent of the German Expressionist films of the ’20s, admiring, as she told Herzog in an interview, Romantic artists like Fritz Lang. For Eisner, Herzog’s first feature-length film, Lebenszeichen, 1968, was “a real German film,” a return to a valued tradition interrupted by the Nazis who’d also been responsible for the Jewish-born Eisner seeking provisional refuge in France in 1933, where, during her exile, and after the War, she continued to write film criticism. For Herzog, Eisner was responsible for the regeneration of German culture after the devastation of the Second World War. In 1986 he produced an autobiographical documentary, Portrait Werner Herzog, for which he’d interviewed Eisner in 1983 shortly before her death. Declaring to her and to an audience what had been her personal and cultural significance, he begins: “You have been somehow the consciousness of the new German cinema. We are orphans, a fatherless generation because the barbarism of the Third Reich has disrupted the continuity of filmmaking. There was a void,” he went on, “a gap of almost a quarter century and you have bridged that gap for us to the great filmmakers of the ’20s, the great Expressionist epoch, and more important, my feeling is that there was no legitimate German culture anymore, not in film or anywhere and your authority and your declaration have given us legitimacy. Only that has opened for us the gate to audiences outside of Germany.” His debt and his ties to her were personal and national.

In the year 98, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of Rome’s 200-year-long struggle to subdue the German people. Describing them as “bereft of wine and letters,” Tacitus recorded a document of a people who were lodged in bogs and forests, primitive and rugged, but with, as historian Simon Schama describes in his thorough and engaging treatise on the western reading of landscape, Landscape and Memory (Random House, 1995), a certain natural nobility. Lost and found again in monastery libraries, the manuscript Germania was brought to Venice in 1470, and a vernacular translation was published in Leipzig in 1496, at which time it became, as Schama noted, lodged, “permanently in the bloodstream of German culture.” Here was the telling of origins and the creation of myths describing a forested land inhabited by a people who could be swayed neither by the luxuries of Rome nor later by the dangerous “rational discourse and skeptical inquiry” of the French. Schama reminds us that the natural “world of timbered virtue” had been, by the end of the Thirty Years War largely ruined and emptied of its massive oaks and beech forests. Replanted with quickly growing conifers, the forests assumed a broader role than providing habitat, building materials and fuel. “But even as prolific forests of fir and larch rose in the heartland of the old German woods,” Schama wrote, “the cultural imagination of Germany was being intensely reseeded with the oak groves of yore.”

Setting out on foot, then from Munich, Herzog was carrying with him a weight of mythologies. His own, as a child growing up during the war in an isolated mountain region as far from the danger of bombs and destruction as his mother could take him; as a filmmaker he bore ties to the origins of German filmmaking, and as a German there were the inherited and shaping cultural myths. Through the wintery landscape, he went on foot, walking to sustain, with each additional step, the woman who understood these myths, and for Herzog and for contemporary German culture, the mother to much of the story.

At the beginning of his documentary, he tells us, “It is while walking that my imaginary world works best.” This is indeed a pilgrim’s commitment and he invests it accordingly, engaging the process. “I set off on the most direct route to Paris in full faith,” he writes in the foreword. Faith and foot and considerable endurance, into the winter. Both highly conscious and alert to the task, and alternately slipping into an almost dream-like state, Herzog advances.

There’s not much you miss when you travel on foot. It’s like walking dogs. You leave no jet stream behind, the tempo can only be human; you smell what is around you, feel the ground under your feet, remark even a pebble under your sole. Senses are acute: the wind only passes your cheek or sears it. Snow is a grace as it falls or accursed when it’s wet and driven and congeals on your frame, making you no more significant than a post.

It is November 23 when Herzog leaves Munich, December 14 when he arrives in Paris. What he meets is rain and snow and wind. Only storms. After one snowstorm exhausts itself he notes the calm. “Raindrops are still falling from the fir trees to the needle-covered ground. My thighs are steaming like a horse.” He walks, observes and entertains himself. He passes small villages, takes the occasional meal in cafes and inns. He writes, “The fare tonight shall be fowl, says the innkeeper in the Stillness.” He records in his journal the things he sees as he passes on foot, from the probable and documentary to the absurd, all of it weighted evenly in his notes. “Only if this were a film would I consider it real,” and he is a filmmaker walking and working, with the camera before him or performing a drama he is recording through his lens. “For years the doors of Genkingen have been banging in the wind,” could be an opening voiceover. “Truth itself wanders through the forest,” the same narrator could later add.

It requires a mix of arrogance, hubris and courage to undertake a journey on foot, alone in the winter, adhering to as direct a route as is feasible and seeking as little human contact as possible in a thoroughly developed and inhabited country. The primeval-rooted forest is present as blood memory (the contemporary remnants of which are fir trees), and it recurs throughout. Unless we wish to be torn from a branch and lifted off by a careless wind–the seared and brown leaf of a mythic oak–we are rooted in the landscape that shaped us. We come from somewhere and in good part Herzog’s essential landschaft extends back to the description recorded by Tacitus. In Walking in Ice Herzog writes down the contemporary landscape he encounters: the peripheries of larger cities that he skirts, villages and towns, fields fallow, ploughed or still showing blackened unharvested crops, rivers and forests. What is natural is nature’s current adaptation; nothing remains of the early forest where massive oaks offer shelter under their boughs for the first wanderer. This is the landscape Herzog traverses, and like most landscapes it’s at once real and imagined. Forests, vertical figures on hills and planes can provide him shelter or risk. He writes, “Hail and storm, almost knocking me off my feet with the first gust. Blackness crept forth from the forest and at once I thought, this won’t end well.” But it’s not wild boar and the fierce ox that he encounters; he comments on cows in transport trucks, on dogs in farmyards, on sheep huddling in shelters and the “trust on their faces,” and on the ubiquitousness of mice. “Only he who walks sees mice. Across the fields, where the snow lay, they’ve dug tunnels between grass and snow….Friendship is possible with mice.” But perhaps not with the stands of trees. “Everywhere the forest was staring and vast and black and deathly, rigidly still.” He asks himself, “Why is walking so full of woe,” this trek on which he has launched himself, impelled by love and admiration, pride and a stubborn, stout heart.

As he walks he notes the human traces left as markers of disregard or unmindfulness. He observes them as unlovely signs of passing habitation and then transforms them into images that are artful: a lady’s bicycle almost new and thrown into a brook, and he speculates on a possible crime, a fight, “something provincial–sultry – dramatic has taken place here, I suspect.” An unusual and long riff on discarded cigarette packages, “The cigarette packets on the roadside fascinate me greatly, even more when left uncrushed, then blown up slightly to take on a corpse-like quality, the edges no longer sharp and the cellophane dimmed from inside from the dampness, forming water droplets in the cold.” With such an acute eye and attentive observation, with his head filled with metaphors, pictures and speculation he should find his imagination a full companion. But throughout the book it is loneliness (and his essential Romantic character) that accompanies him even while he concertedly avoids any company. A solitary raven staying long on a branch conjures that sentiment. “A brotherly feeling flashed through me and loneliness filled my breast.” Caught at night in a snowstorm he is obliged to stay in a small inn. He observes the cheerless town, the pronounced loneliness of the place and its inhabitants, and feels it in himself. Is the loneliness that he notes again as he moves toward Paris, good? Yes it is, he answers. From it he is able to conclude, many kilometres later, “I’m developing a dialogical rapport with myself.”

Sensitive to the winter landscape he passes through, to the solitary state of the few people he observes and to loneliness holding him fast as he moves on the line he has cast to Lotte Eisner, he is at the same time casually rough in his conduct and assessments, even sometimes brutal. Maybe it’s the psychic or temperamental correspondence to the inherited myth of origins Simon Schama referred to–the rugged, ragged landscape and unrelenting winter requiring an answer in kind. Maybe it’s natural to his character. Perhaps the arrogance of taking the first step toward Paris requires it. Whatever its source, it is startling, even jarring in the book. He simply does whatever it is he needs to do as he moves on. He requires shelter at night and breaks into weekend cottages, notes the shabby decor with derision, finishes a crossword puzzle he finds left uncompleted on a table, pees into an old boot and dries his face on a towel he finds in the cottage. “It reeked so bitterly of sweat I’ll carry the stench around with me all day long.” These badly appointed little vacation houses are his shelter as he moves on his set course. None suits him except in meeting his provisional needs. He notes the garbage thrown from cars as he travels beside the roads but stops on a bridge crossing the Seine, sits to rest and empties a carton of the milk he seems to crave in his walking. Then he tosses the empty container into the river and comments that it will be in Paris before him. Pragmatic and bent on survival in order to arrive in time to see “Our Eisner.” Dainty behaviour would be beside the point. And on December 14, at last in Paris, he made his visit to Mme. Eisner. He found her alive but tired, still marked, he observed, by her illness. In his final entry he wrote, “Someone must have told her on the phone that I had come on foot–I didn’t want to mention it.” His reticence and delicacy is matched by hers. “I was embarrassed and placed my smarting legs up on a second armchair, which she pushed over to me.”

Two old friends understanding everything the situation described, without needing to speak about it at all. He’d held fast to the line he’d extended to her when he first heard she might die. His intention was to sustain her through his journey. “Then she looked at me,” he wrote, “and smiled very delicately, and since she knew that I was someone on foot and therefore unprotected, she understood me.”