By Jeremy Carr.
Like the best of Herzog’s work, the result is a contagious survey with no pretense or condescension.”
There seem to be two prevailing views of Werner Herzog today; one being the unusual actor with a strange vocal delivery and a fondness for Baby Yoda, and one being the eccentric filmmaker known for his on-set scraps with Klaus Kinski and his outlandish, some might say downright fanatical methods. For those who know Herzog beyond his recent performances, however, and for those who see past the peculiarities of his cinematic misadventures (both astonishingly true and purely apocryphal), he is a director of ceaseless ambition and infinite depth. Indeed, few filmmakers have explored the breadth of subject matter as Herzog, who has continually delved into material rich in its scenic, social, thematic, and individual resonance. In doing so, particularly with his documentaries, Herzog has unveiled fascinating worlds hitherto unknown or ignored by vast portions of the moviegoing populous, while also, arguably with each passing film, exposing aspects of his own character. Amidst the madness, the exotic curiosity, the profoundly significant, and the frankly bizarre, Herzog has managed to locate kindred spirits — fictional and remarkably real — who share his fervent worldview or, at the very least, expand that perception.
Herzog’s newest documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019), is an exemplary case in point. Telling the life story of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin, in a fittingly meandering Herzogian way, Nomad focuses on a man known for many of the same traits that define the filmmaker himself. Herzog and Chatwin had been friends for years and had both expressed a proclivity for, per Herzog, “wild characters, strange dreamers, and big ideas about the nature of human existence.” They also espoused an enacted interest in the theory of nomadism, the essential refrain of Nomad and something through which they achieved an “immediate rapport” — “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot,” says Herzog. Further, and perhaps most importantly, the two men were united in a penchant for the modified facts that went along with their singular yet similar modes of storytelling. As noted by Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, who provides a wealth of insight throughout the documentary, Chatwin didn’t make things up, he didn’t tell “half-truths,” but he did, quite often, indulge in the “truth and a half.” Could there be any one more allied with Werner Herzog?
While Herzog isn’t the emphasis of Nomad, his on-screen presence and personal narration persistently remind the viewer of who is making this film and why. Herzog was stirred by Chatwin’s travels, his interest in exploration, history, and the endeavors of mankind, so it’s not surprising their lives would ultimately intersect. Chatwin, in Herzog’s words, crafted “mythical tales into voyages of the mind,” a process perfectly aligned with his own insatiable drive toward enigmatic discovery. And to subsequently communicate the account of this inquisitive writer, Herzog adopts the form of a fragmented profile, coalescing into an enlightening, if still incomplete, composite portrait. Nomad is, accordingly, divided into eight “chapters,” each of which explore particular aspects of Chatwin’s life and, frequently, Herzog’s own. Among them there is “The Skin of the Brontosaurus, “Songs and Songlines,” “Chatwin’s Rucksack,” which centers on a durable pack Chatwin regularly carried and eventually bestowed on Herzog, who put it to the test in one harrowing frozen trek recounted in the film, and “Cobra Verde,” which looks back at the making of Herzog’s 1987 film of that name, based on Chatwin’s 1980 novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah. Nomad’s diverging trails of thought are entwined with stunning geographical diversity, as Herzog charts an inspired course covering Patagonia, Wales, Australia, and elsewhere, relishing in the topography of these sundry settings and visually testifying to natural elements that molded the “landscape of [Chatwin’s] soul.” Set to the music of Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, who has provided ambient majesty for several Herzog films, Nomad also professes a profound reverence for the inhabitants of these varied lands. Herzog, like Chatwin, is fascinated with the precarious confluences of culture, with sacred texts, religious practices, and the expression of tribal beliefs via story and song. In tandem with this consideration is a devotion to the archeological preservation of the past — the artifacts, photographs, and narratives that form any given society, but especially those existing on the fringes of global appreciation.
Commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s death, from AIDS at the age of 49, Nomad premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. Herzog said he wanted to create an “erratic quest” rather than a “biographical film,” and to that end he was certainly successful. Although Herzog appears genuinely pained when discussing Chatwin’s death, in an emotional reveal that is pure and simple and, in that respect, relatively rare for Herzog, straightforward personal details are fairly sparse; neither he nor Chatwin’s devoted widow find much relevance in Chatwin’s bisexuality, for example, so the matter is swiftly dropped. Instead, just as he intended, Herzog meditates on the inscrutable forces that shaped his friend’s life and livelihood, the existential essence of his passionate pursuits. Conveyed in his distinguished poetic voice (another trait shared by he and Chatwin), Nomad is an earnest and intimate tribute, and with Herzog as an impassioned yet modest mediator it quickly becomes easy to get caught up in the chronicle. Like the best of Herzog’s work, the result is a contagious survey with no pretense or condescension. In much the same way Chatwin’s writing so affected Herzog, we find ourselves caring about Chatwin simply because Herzog so obviously did to begin with.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).