Werner Herzog's legacy always seems to run the risk of being reduced to anecdote. Will he be better remembered for his work, or for the stories behind it? Herzog is famous for hypnotizing his cast, cooking and eating his own shoe on a bet with first-time documentarian Errol Morris, threatening to kill his lead actor, and pulling a boat over a mountain. But are these stories more interesting than the films that bred them? It's the difference between idea and deed; the former can be popped as easy as a pill, the latter makes for broader meal. To know Herzog mostly through rumour is to miss the deep edification of his filmmaking, the gutsy, borderless, vast interests that have produced so many tellable tidbits.
One such anecdote that has proceeded its source finds Werner Herzog trekking from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974 to "save" the life of film historian Lotte Eisner. Though the reason this particular meal, the travelogue Of Walking in Ice, has been passed over in favour of the pill is because the source has been mostly out of print since it was first published in 1979. Thanks to University of Minnesota Press, the whole story can now be savoured.
|Herzog and Eisner|
Herzog defined New German Cinema along with the likes of Fassbinder, Wenders, and von Trotta. For this new generation of filmmakers, the grown children of of World War Two, Lotte Eisner was one of the few film critics who recognized the worth of these artists in a post-war global atmosphere still reluctant to praise or celebrate anything produce by Germany. "We, the new generation of filmmakers," Herzog says in his 1982 tribute to Eisner, included in this new edition, "are a fatherless generation. We are orphans. We have only grandfathers–Murnau, Lang, Pabst, the generation of the 1920... [Eisner's] books... all provided us with a bridge to our historical and cultural context. No one else will ever know what this means." When, at the end of 1974, Herzog got word that Eisner was dying, he wrote to tell her not to until he came to see her. Instead of rushing to his champion's side, Herzog set out on foot with only "a jacket, a compass, and a duffel bag with the necessities."
What follows, as it's recounted by Herzog – then 32 years old – reads like a dream. Herzog moves through pastures and villages, breaking into off-season vacation homes, sleeping in barns. At times, the reportage resembles the late fevered trudging in his film from two years earlier, Aguirre, the Wrath of God:
A ladies' bicycle, nearly brand new, was thrown into a brook; it occupied my thoughts for quite some time. A crime? The scene of a fight? Something provincial-sultry-dramatic has taken place here, I suspect. A bench painted red is half-covered with water. A cat has jumped up on the lantern above the front door of a house and doesn't dare move any further, feeling that she is too high above the ground. She gently sways with the lantern in the wind.To reveal that Eisner lives to receive an exhausted Herzog, three weeks after he set out, won't spoil anything. The thought he delivers to her: "Together, I said, we shall boil fire and stop fish."
Aside from the anecdotes, Herzog is now probably best known in popular culture for the many impressions of his staid, severe Teutonic (Bavarian, to be specific) delivery. To a certain extent, the ribbing's deserved. Purple earnestness like Herzog's doesn't really exist anymore. His sometimes dour, hyperbolic view of the world – "Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos..." – is easy to poke fun at. However, I'd argue that Herzog is as optimistic as he can sometimes seem risibly caustic. For Herzog, there seems to be as much magic as there is chaos in the world – though I suppose he might term that magic "ecstasy". As he has said, "In the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft."
Herzog, like many of his characters or subjects, seems to engage with the world in a way that foists his vision and will on it, with the purpose of actually altering it. It's this sort of optimistic temerity that breeds tall-seeming tales. "We would not permit her death," he says at the outset of his visit to Eisner, and his three week ramble feels like his process of damming that course.