This voice. Haunting, powerful, almost prophetic, immersed in an Upper Bavarian color that conjures up a world without pity that can do without people. Werner Herzog, meanwhile roughened by age, has cultivated it into an instrument that charges the voiceovers of his documentaries with an aura of biblical calamity.
The jungle that overgrows every footprint in no time. The volcano that snuffs out all life at its feet. The meteorite that ends every civilization. Herzog’s stoic pathos unfolds between rebellion against nature and humble insight into what is greater that one has to submit to.
In the memoirs that he presented for his 80th birthday, he attributes the discovery of this voice to his experiences as a hypnotist. In 1976 he shot “Herz aus Glas” with a team of supposedly willless actors, the story of Mühlhiasl from the Bavarian Forest, a visionary of the late 18th century who indulged in dark prophecies.
One thinks one can also hear this voice from his memoirs, which bear the same title as his Kaspar Hauser film from 1974 with “Everyone for themselves and God against all”.
Not only that nobody can get rid of them once they’ve been in their ears. If it is true that writing is an activity that demands the whole human being with all senses, sinews and muscles, then his prose pulses and vibrates with a comparable mixture of sensitivity and hardness, expectation of the apocalypse and security in the face of decline. Nothing is so terrifying that it cannot create a beauty of its own.
The opening scene sets the tone. It shows the 16-year-old off Chora Sfakion, on the south coast of Crete, as he goes out to sea at night with fishermen, black silence above him, below him an ocean lit up by carbide lamps, which leads him to the astonished conviction that he will receive this “grace” survive at most another year or two.
He was spared this early death, and he doesn’t want to know anything about the inevitably approaching one. With all his creative power, he reveals in a chapter on “unfinished business” that the projects are after him “as furies can be after you, but they also flee from me.”
Who is this man who, when it comes down to it, climbs every stage with indomitable self-confidence, but also takes every opportunity to hide from the public eye? It’s more than coquetry when Herzog claims: “I find it difficult to describe any self-description because I have a problem with mirrors.” “I have a deep aversion to too much self-examination, to navel-gazing,” he confesses.
“I would also rather be dead than go to a psychiatrist because I think something fundamentally wrong is happening. If you brightly illuminate a house down to the last corner, the house becomes uninhabitable.” Even in the conscious armouring, however, the memories allow deep insights into Herzog’s mental household. He knows that too: “What I’ve done in films, what I’ve published in books are enough gateways, breaches in my fortress, which is already yawning wide open and defenseless.”
But his book also hopes to make it a bit more difficult for future biographers – and to overwrite existing portraits like that of Moritz Holfelder once and for all. As far as his cinematic development is concerned, much is known about the basic features. Many anecdotes can already be found in countless interviews, which he has developed into his own art form – a theme with variations – and in “A Guide for the Perplexed”, a thick volume of discussions with Paul Cronin.
Herzog also documented the first years with Klaus Kinski, in particular the time in a boarding house in Munich’s Elisabethstrasse, when his later protagonist broke up the bathroom in a two-day fit of rage, in the film “My Dearest Enemy”.
The memoirs put many incidents, some of which he has already brought into the world in less reliable versions, into a definitive version. But he also reveals the origins of many obsessions, such as his fascination with ski jumping. Other things, such as his late passion for staging operas, are presented here in detail for the first time. The notes that have survived from some of the shoots are particularly rich in biographical and literary terms.
“The Conquest of the Useless”, his notes on the work on “Fitzcarraldo”, excerpts of which are repeated here, became a separate volume which, after the diary “Vom Walking in the Ice”, reinforced his reputation as a stylist. Now he reports how difficult it was for him to come to terms with the sometimes traumatic experiences of that time.
Also close are the pages he wrote in 1984 for the “Ballad of the Little Soldier”. The film is about the guerrilla struggle of the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, who first fought with the Sandinistas against Somoza, then against them and sent numerous children into this war. Or the fragments of Herzog’s hike around Germany, which he began in June 1982 on the Chiemgauer Spitzstein above Sachrang, the village where he grew up, which he had broken off due to illness after a thousand kilometers.
Finally, the testimonies of his crossing of the Alps in 1986. Herzog arranges his life in highlights, which, in addition to their heterogeneity, could be accused of using leftovers. But from the fragmentary and the narrated, from the painstakingly researched and the found, the tension of these memories grows, which just don’t want to pretend false conciseness.
The surprise is the memories of Ella and Rudolf, his paternal grandparents. He was a professor of classics who supervised the excavation of ancient treasures on the then Turkish island of Kos, and she was his much younger, well-read wife.
A couple from whom he certainly inherited part of his passion for expeditions, while his father Dietrich, to whom a separate chapter is dedicated together with his mother Elisabeth, remained, despite all his thirst for knowledge, a Halodri in love with fibbing, who made his living at the expense of other people and the mother soon left. He probably inherited his tenacity from her: “A good part of my nature to this day is nothing but naked discipline.”
Werner Herzog shows himself again in his memoirs as a child of war, not of peace – and as a child of the mountains, not of the city. Affectionate portraits are dedicated to early heroes such as Storm Sepp, a farmhand from the neighboring farm who was stunted by life and work, or the only girl in the group of friends, the “Wibi”.
In general, this book is full of people: the two brothers, under whom “Lucki” runs his production business, and, with the necessary discretion, the women and children. Also appearing: the Germanist Hauke Stroszeck, to whom he promised as a student that he would make his name world-famous if he wrote him a seminar paper: he has fulfilled it with “Stroszek”. The later RAF terrorist Rolf Pohle. Or Bruce Chatwin, about whom he made one of his most recent films.
Herzog’s memoirs are written much more carefully than most recently “The Dawning of the World,” his little novel about the Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who, believing that World War II would continue, holed up on a Pacific island almost three decades after the surrender. In his own way, Herzog also stylizes himself in “Everyone for himself and God against all” to be the last of his kind, sensitive and full-bodied at the same time.
“I consider the 20th century as a whole to be a mistake,” he once wrote. In the well-advanced 21st century, one can perhaps at least take comfort in the fact that it produced him, his films and his books.