Documentary

Werner Herzog's New Film Is About an Old, Dead Friend

"When he came to see my new film at the time, the first thing he said was: 'Werner, I'm dying.' I said, 'Yes I can see that.'"

by Daniel Dylan Wray
19 June 2019, 8:30am

Werner Herzog and Bruce Chatwin. Photo courtesy of BBC. 

"It's bitter that he died so young," says Werner Herzog of Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer who succumbed to AIDS 30 years, aged 48. Chatwin was Herzog's friend and is the subject of his latest BBC Studios documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. "At the same time, there's no sentimentality about it," he continues dryly as we discuss the film in Sheffield before its premiere at Doc/Fest. "Rather laconically, when he came to southern France to see my new film about nomadic people, the first thing he said was: 'Werner, I'm dying.' I said, 'Yes I can see that.' There was no tearfulness."

For anyone half-familiar with Herzog's work – a staggering filmography of both feature and documentary film that spans over 50 years – this blunt approach to sentimentality will not come as a shock. In his documentaries Herzog's voice is a familiar presence, guiding us through films with a tone that can often veer towards contemptuousness, but is also often delivered with poetic truths, irreverent insights and dark ebullience.

While Herzog's voiceovers may sound like carefully crafted words spoken from someone who has spent a long time pondering the depths and meaning of the images in front of him, the reality is they come much more quickly.

"I see on the screen what needs to be said, I start writing and I do it in two minutes flat," he says. "I do things that nobody else would ever say. For example, in the film about volcanoes [Into the Inferno] I say something that maybe the National Geographic would be puzzled about. I speak about this boiling magma that is under our feet everywhere, under the seabed, and it is monumentally indifferent…"

He stops himself and leans over the table, his eyes looking straight into mine through those heavy eyelids of his. "Now, listen to this…" and he starts reciting his own voiceover like it's a poem that's forever embedded in his mind. "It's monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike." He stops with a big grin and adds, "I like to savour what I write."

werner herzog patagonia bruce chatwins rucksack
Werner Herzog at Cerro Torre, Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin's rucksack. Photo courtesy of BBC.

In this film, Herzog's voice guides us through Chatwin's world as he revisits places that were crucial to his work, such as Patagonia, Australia and Wales. All the while, Herzog carries with him Chatwin's old rucksack, which was given to him shortly before he died, and plays both a physical and symbolic role in the film. "I think he carried it around 5,000 to 10,000 kilometres on his back, and I've carried it a few thousand too. I had it when I was caught in a snowstorm on a mountain."

Sentences like this often pop up mid conversation with Herzog – "The time I was shot at," "The time I was arrested and put in an African prison," "The time I had malaria," "The time we had two plane crashes on set" – and all are delivered with what borders on insouciance, when to most they would be life-altering moments. He continues with his snowstorm story in this matter-of-fact manner: "We were on a very narrow ridge and we had to dig ourselves into a tiny ice cave – about the size of a beer barrel – and it was 20 below zero in a 200 kilometre per hour storm. We had to spend 55 hours in that, and I sat on his rucksack to avoid sitting on ice directly."

How does someone who has been exposed to so many of life's extremes deal with such situations? "My attitude is a very primitive one," he says. "I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me and I do not become bonkers. One of the three men with me became quite ill [mentally], and that was critical. He wanted to climb down, but it was over a thousand metres' vertical drop during a white-out. We had no ropes, no ice picks, no nothing. We had to hold and force him in this little ice cave. Common sense kicks in."

Herzog is a fascinating character who at times seems both typically quixotic as well as being the defiant antithesis of it: in chase of wild impassioned obsessive pursuits, but doing so with a head and spirit that seems unbreakable. "I don’t panic," he says. "I have to deal with what is thrown at me and I just do it. I look around to see where the enemy is coming the most, and then head straight for the part that's least dense."

Like in many of his films, landscapes exist as an important backdrop in Nomad. Some of the most affecting scenes are just panning landscape shots accompanied by Herzog’s voiceover.

"I think something fundamental has always stayed with me, and that is the fact that landscapes are never a scenic backdrop," he counters. "They are always describing a state or quality of the human mind. In some of the films I did in Amazonia, the jungle represents fever dreams; landscapes have specific qualities that make them almost into protagonists in films, and I think Nomad is no different. You have to have a sense for landscapes and how to direct them. So I direct landscapes – as well as animals – in my films."

Given that this film finds Herzog returning to places that Chatwin visited decades ago, it leads naturally to the discussion of environmental decline and the humans adding to its inevitable deterioration. Herzog is typically candid about this. "Both Bruce and I shared a fundamental view that the human race is quite fragile and we'd have a fairly short time of existence on this planet," he says. "The more human beings we have on this planet, the more vulnerable the construct is becoming. We are too many on this planet."

Is he fearful of climate change? "No, no, no, no," he spits back, as he often does. "I just do whatever I can and I do not wait for governments to take action, because such projects are of great complexity and a family of nations is not capable of solving it on a political level easily. You don't wait for them to take action; it's down to all of us. Until the government kick in and really begin to function, we are going to be sitting on a planet that is melting away."

The conversation then leads on to a society obsessed with consumption and Herzog’s disdain for it. "I have just one pair of shoes," he says proudly, slapping his feet up on the desk to reveal a sensible pair of black leather shoes. Although he quickly corrects himself: "In fact, that's not the full truth; I do have sandals and solid mountain boots."

As our time wraps up and Herzog’s feet return to the floor, I bring him back round to his personal experience of getting reacquainted with a close friend who died many years ago and, for a brief moment, a slither of sentimentality creeps through as he says with a smile: "It brought some of my best memories back to me."

@danieldylanwray