German filmmaker Werner Herzog loves an audience, and few audiences are as warm and welcoming to him as film critic Roger Ebert. Whilst the Pulitzer Prize winning Ebert wasn’t afraid to deliver scathing reviews to other filmmakers, Herzog’s unique and highly personal approach to the cinematic form has beguiled him from the outset. And it’s hard to disagree. Ebert was an early champion for Herzog’s films, which has resulted in a lifelong friendship. Or perhaps respect and admiration is the correct terms, as Herzog in his forward details some of the intricacies of their relationship, noting that their roles always necessitated some degree of distance. For Herzog though, initially ignored at home, attending film festivals as a no one in the US it would be impossible not to be drawn to someone who so eloquently espouses the genius of your films.
Ebert could never get over Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. It makes sense, the concept of going deep into the South American jungle, clearing a large swathe of forest and hauling a 360 tonne steamer over a mountain between two river systems using only ancient pulley systems is clearly insane. Ebert mentioned it in nearly every piece he wrote on Herzog or his films. Most of his reviews tend to suggest that Herzog is a visionary filmmaker who pushes himself and those around him to the limits of endurance in the quest for cinema removed of artifice. Herzog has always been drawn to outsider characters, passionate dreamers, fringe dwellers with a single minded determination to do something that most of society would deem totally insane. This seems to be how Ebert viewed Herzog.
This book mixes raptuous reviews of films like Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, with interviews, mediated Q&A’s with an audience and personal correspondence. Normally an enamoured critic means a poor review, yet Ebert’s growing understanding of Herzog’s obsessions, ability to link themes across multiple films and wide eyed enthusiasim make for a compelling narrative. In his review for Encounters at the End of the World he refers to Herzog as ‘a romantic warrior drawn to extremes.’ Who wouldn’t want to be seen through these eyes?
What this adulation does to is relax Herzog and we get fascinating insights beyond his usual mythologizing. It feels like a peek behind the curtain, where they discuss the ‘voodoo of location,’ i.e why he shot Nosforatu The Vampire in many of the same locations as F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosforatu, or used a real steamboat without special effects in Fitzcarraldo – or how a border war in Northern Peru forced them 1,000 km into the jungle to film. One fascinating aspect of their discussion is about Herzog’s active participation in his films, his use of artifice to create the real. At one point Ebert suggests that Rescue Dawn, his 2007 Hollywood film starring Christian Bale was more realisitic than his earlier 1998 doco on the same subject, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which was filled with Herzog touches passed off as truths. But mostly he is able to gently challenge Herzog on the incongruities, such as how and why images of crabs shot on Christmas Island ended up in Invincible, or a dancing chicken ended Stroszek – which the crew hated so much Herzog had to operate the camera himself, or why he had to revisit the Urabamba River in Peru for his 2007 film My Son, My Son What Have ye Done. And his answer is remarkable:
“we have to develop an adequate language for our state of civilization, and we do have to create adequate pictures – images for our civilization. If we do not do that we will die our like dinosaurs, so its on a different magnitude, trying to do something against the wasteland of images that surround us, on television, magazines postcards, posters, in travel agencies…”
If it’s not clear already this book is film school. The merging of the artistic intent with critical evaluation, with the addition of the artist and critic invited back to discuss their perspectives with each other. This never happens.
Whilst Herzog comes across as quite mad with a very healthy ego, it shouldn’t take Ebert to tell you he is one of the most significant filmmakers of his generation – and its these qualities that assist him to push through when many would have simply given up. It’s why he continues to make films that no one else does, and it’s why this book is not just fascinating, but so damn inspiring.