Literature Feature | Literature and the work of Werner Herzog

The 2017 Dublin International Literature Festival (ILFD) is taking place between the 20th and the 29th of May. With guests like Jo Nesbo and Colm Toibin, as well as our own Headstuff Lectures, making an appearance, it’s set to be a fun and intellectually stimulating event. However, one particular speaker is dominating headlines in regards to the festival. That speaker is legendary German director Werner Herzog, currently scheduled to talk on Sunday, 21st of May at the National Concert Hall.

Most renowned for directing classic epics Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), although with younger audiences his best-known work may be 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans starring Nicolas Cage, he is a major get for the festival. Yet, for some it may be strange that someone so synonymous with cinema is speaking at a literature festival. After all, the two are their own distinct mediums. In response to such claims, it can be argued that literature has always been a major influence for Herzog. In a recent interview promoting his latest film Salt and Fire (his fourth film released in 2017), when asked what his hobbies are, he replied: “No, I don’t have any hobbies. I do read. But it’s not a hobby. It’s an essential part of my set up. It keeps you into storytelling and into poetry and into conceptual thinking.” Herzog even has a compulsory reading list for students of his Rogue Film School; a list that does not comprise of a single book on directing or the technicalities of filmmaking, but contains a Hemingway short story collection and Virgil’s Georgics. This love of literature is something which permeates into his filmography in very interesting ways as he implements ideas pioneered in writing into his films.

The director is a published writer. In 1974, following news that film critic and mentor to Herzog, Lotte Eisner, was dying in Paris, the German travelled from Munich to the French capital on-foot. Believing that such a sacrifice would keep her alive, the journey took three months. On his travels, he kept a diary – excerpts from which were published as Of Walking in Ice in 1978.

In Of Walking in Ice, one sees the themes associated with literature that preoccupy Herzog, themes which seep into his cinematic output. A major example is that of the sublime, a literary concept developed in the 18th century as part of the Romantic Era. Made popular by the writers of this time such as Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, the concept dealt with the effect that greatness, most usually the grandness of nature, has upon humans – provoking a reaction somewhere between awe and terror. Herzog writes in Of Walking in Ice of experiencing similar sensations while battling thick fog, icy terrain and large mountains during his pilgrimage: “I was walking on an avalanche of wet snow without initially noticing it. Suddenly the entire slope was creeping forwards most peculiarly, the whole earth beneath me beginning to move. What is creeping there, what is hissing there, I said, is this some serpent hissing? Then the entire mountainside crept and hissed below me.”


[pullquote] “At the side of the road I was startled by heaps of slippery mushrooms, colonies the size of car tyres, which looked malignant, poisonous and putrid. Horses grey with age were standing motionless on watery meadows, hundreds of them, forming a cordon. Ducks in muddy farmyards. While taking a rest, I realized that sheep were staring at me fixedly from behind. They were standing in rank and file, all of this happening near a petrol station. When the station attendant eyed me mistrustfully, the sheep moved closer in formation.” [/pullquote]

This idea of nature being overwhelming to the human psyche is a major part of Aguirre, the Wrath of God where the titular conquistador leads a mutiny against his commander during an expedition along the Amazon River circa 1560. From the opening sublime image – one of the explorers and their Indian slaves scaling down the Andes, their bodies like flecks of dust against the mountain range that looms ominously around them – it’s clear the vast and seemingly endless terrain is driving the characters insane, even causing hallucinations. It’s no surprise Francis Ford Coppola aped the style of Aguirre when adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as Apocalypse Now, the original story often cited as being heavily steeped in the tradition of the sublime.This continues throughout his filmography, most of which Herzog writes himself. In Fitzcarraldo, it’s the beauty of the Andes driving the titular character’s dream to build an opera house in the jungle – literally moving mountains to make his ambitions a reality. Herzog’s Nosferatu, an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, equates the central vampire’s power to nature, with a villager describing his castle as a “great chasm that swallows the unwary.” In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, the main character’s experience kayaking on a raging river in Peru, one which killed all his friends, is cited as one of the possible reasons for the character’s unravelling sanity. Even in Bad Lieutenant, it’s Cage’s cop’s experience during Hurricane Katrina that has left him mentally and physically broken.

Absurdist fiction, known for its existential themes and questioning of the purpose of life, also plays a major role in the work of Herzog. Like the work of Albert Camus or Franz Kafka, Of Walking in Ice is unconventional in structure – a series of diary entries based in true events blended with surreal flights of fantasy, some of which wouldn’t feel out of place in Samuel Beckett’s bibliography: “Grandfather once let it be known that he felt his vertebrae were broken, with everything held together only because he was sitting in the arms of the chair. If he stood up, all would fall apart like a pile of stones”. Herzog’s book juxtaposes seemingly pointless actions with a questioning of existential concepts – analysing whether one proves the other. Herzog felt deep down within him that taking the pilgrimage to Paris would save the life of Eisner, despite being aware the idea was, as he notes, “absurd”. However, against all odds, his mentor did live another eight years.

Again, the absurd bleeds into Herzog’s cinematic output, both in his fictional and documentary work. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Woyzeck, the director’s adaptation of the unfinished play by Georg Buchner. Cited as a pre-cursor to the later theatre of the absurd, its’ story centres upon a lowly soldier in a mid-19th century provincial town who, to provide for his family, agrees to take part in experiment where he must eat nothing but peas. Another example is a moment in Encounters at the End of the World, his documentary about life in the South Pole. An incredible moment sees Herzog capturing on-camera “a deranged penguin”, one which refuses to travel with the herd to the feeding grounds or to the colony, instead running head-first toward mountains facing “certain death.” Again, it’s the director exposing the absurdity of existence, showing the viewer that insanity isn’t something solely linked to humans but can be found in the natural world.

Lastly, to some degree with his non-fiction work, Herzog has taken on the role of this generation’s lead travel writer. With movies like Encounters, it’s Netflix semi-sequel Into the Inferno and The White Diamond, we see Herzog travel to places viewers may never see e.g. the icy poles of the Earth, North Korea or the rainforests of Guyana. Narrated in his fabulously Bavarian voice, these documentaries evoke the sensation of reading literature like Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa or J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands, books where the pleasure comes not necessarily from the places these writers visit, but their personal experiences travelling which are then recounted for the reader.  Encounters at the End of the World is less about the environment of the South Pole than the strange, diverse group of people he meets there, people with “the intention to jump off the margins of the map.” Into the Inferno is more about what volcanoes mean to those who live near them – e.g. scientists, adrenaline junkies, the cannibalistic tribes that worship them – than volcanoes itself. Meanwhile, The White Diamond takes time out from its main story regarding a man trying to fly a zeppelin over a vast waterfall in Guyana to interview the natives of the area, one of which inexplicably loves to moonwalk on the cliff facing the cascade.

Werner Herzog is good for literature. Not only has he preached in its favour publicly (his recent WTF Interview with Marc Maron began with a discussion of reading), but with his brief foray into writing and his cinematic output, it’s undoubtedly clear the German director has a wealth of respect for the medium. Thus, he is a perfect guest to speak at a literature festival, his night promising to be one of intelligence and enlightenment.

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