Forbidden Truths, the Symmetry of Myth, and a Friendship Uninterrupted by Death: Werner Herzog on Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
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Nomad: In the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

"Take care, oh wanderer, the road goes too."

– Jim Harrison

To anyone now in an all-too-familiar, self-same cycle of recurring fear, it's no great mystery that cinema can (and maybe should) provide a familiar, welcome respite. The palliative possibilities of the cinema allow a feeling of flight with closed borders and also remind us of our unstable equilibrium as we strive to outlast the current time.

In this mode, patience is the currency. However, we are confined to our rooms and neighborhoods and we are all prone to a feeling of restlessness. Over the past six months, there has been no shortage of succinct but weary articles in our wellness media urging the public to calm and strengthen the general fearful awareness. At this moment of the pandemic, we are encouraged to exhort ourselves to long to be elsewhere, even as reckoning with the natural world becomes increasingly important to human survival.

But if this restlessness has a newer universality, like the limitless contagion that sparked it, then what about the wanderer who never felt at home before it all? And what about those who have never felt anything that was even remotely right if they stayed seated?

Early on in his new film Nomad: In the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, a portrait of his deceased friend and colleague, an apparently tireless Werner Herzog returns to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia near the southern extreme of the western hemisphere. To visit a magnetizing place that the British travel writer and journalist was so drawn to that he left a fairly prestigious life as head of antiques at Sotheby & # 39; s, Herzog reads the landscape. As part of the frame, the foreground is the wreck of a ship that is somehow identical in every visible way when an enchanted Chatwin photographed it almost 50 years earlier for his first book In Patagonia.

The matchcut of these frames enhances the ghostly air of the abandoned ship. The hull of the ship doesn't seem to have withered in these nearly five decades, as if time had somehow been forbidden to pass. The water neither swallowed it nor broke its frame during the storms that must have passed through this vital channel, the Strait of Magellan, which connects two oceans. Rather, it just rocks there, gently and solemnly in the breakwater, a fragile monument that withstands the erosion of age and defies all the consequences of the elements.

Herzog's camera next focuses on the free surface in the water, and in the shapes that the wind throws on the shallows, it's impossible not to range those waves, which are scattered across the range near the bow of the hull, as something other to see serpentine animus forms. These brooks cavort under the surface as a kind of remnant beyond, which is a symbol for a great natural secret. These forms can be explained, but why should they be? It is an unreal picture, as we have now expected from Herzog. And as with his most breathtaking and brutally elegant work, there is no need to defend the image. It is, in fact, the greatest asset of an image that stands as its own justification – its captivating self. No other living director has stuck to this patient method over and over again.


Herzog himself smiles and is warm when he is reached by video in his home in Los Angeles. "You recognized someone like him from afar," is the most accurate description of Chatwin Herzog. "And our worldviews were not dissimilar." Chatwin's humor, his gift for mimicry, his observations of the absurd and comedic events of life, sometimes fixated on the strange and viewed by previous generations as freaks, undoubtedly match perfectly with Herzog's similar traits.

The portrait of Chatwin that appears here is framed in a straight line and steady. "I didn't work on it at all," claims Herzog when asked about the history of the project. "But in a way it was dormant within me." The film, on behalf of the BBC On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Chatwin's death last fall, Herzog says: “… was child's play. I immediately said yes, of course, I would – because I know that I am the right one. It didn't take any research. I just went back into some of his books and warmed up to the prose he wrote. "

Herzog believes that without this commission he would not have been forced to review his relationship with Chatwin. "I don't have to visit the relationship again," he says. “He and I were so close on our individual wavelengths that he was always part of my intellectual, artistic construction. He always stayed with me. "

To date there is really no other font than Chatwin's. His work – starting with early books like The Songlines and In Patagonia – works not just from a naturalistic point of view, but also from a mindset that views the longevity and livelihood of tribal people and indigenous cultures around the world as constantly at risk. In both Chatwin's view and the picture's view, the destructive line that the western world had in these cultures is undisputed and still there. As Herzog himself says in the picture: "They are living in their last days."

Chatwin loved Herzog's exaggerated saying, "Tourism is a sin, traveling on foot is a virtue," which is now quoted so often that it borders on a simple understatement of the intentions of Herzog's work. The affection between the two fellow travelers could not have been more mutual. "He loved to skate in the ice," says Herzog about Chatwin, referring to his diary of a legendary hike from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974 to the bed of the sick founder of the Cinémathèque Française, Lotte Eisner, the voice of his cold Sahara Mirage Documentary Fata Morgana. “He has it in his backpack on his travels. He had a few books with him, and it was one of his tiny consolations. When he was completely exhausted, one of his last was a tiny piccolo bottle of champagne. When he was completely down, somewhere in the desert, little provisions, really at the end, he would pop the little champagne. His last line of defense. "

Given the common thread between their sensitivities, Herzog's foreground in Nomad becomes all the more tragic of seers visiting the site of discovery of a Mylodon skin. As a child, Chatwin was fascinated by a curiosity in his grandmother's household – she called it "a piece of brontosaur skin," but it was really a swath of the skin of a mylodon, a long-extinct, giant ground sloth. kept in Patagonia before one of Chatwin's ancestors transported it to England. Chatwin vowed that one day he would see this sloth's place and years later left his employer just one sentence, a heroic note, to explain his absence: "Gone to Patagonia." And here they are, Years later, Chatwin and Herzog pose as visitors from foreign countries next to what is now a reconstruction of this prehistoric animal. These tourists trade one camera for another and make absolutely sure that every possible snapshot is taken on every possible device. Can such a photographic ritual even begin to establish a true, experiential connection with a place, with a country, with history? "I ask myself that when I'm on a plane and passengers take millions of photos of themselves in their seats," says Herzog. “Then, in the Colosseum or in the Taj Majal, the selfies, selfies, selfies somehow confirm their presence in the world, but they don't experience the world at all. It delegates experience to a stored, digitized memory. It is quite unlike those who travel on foot. "

W.When he talks about traveling on foot, Herzog is in no way poetic or philosophical. He doesn't remember, he approves. Although the idiom sometimes feels like a big hit – those are words we've heard from him many times – they have even more resonance now, spoken in the context of a portrait of his deceased comrade, another nomadic wandering principle of being.

"When I was traveling on foot, I went without a camera," says Herzog. "For Chatwin and me that meant that you had no household with you. No cooking utensils, no bath mats. You are exposed. You have to knock on the door of a farmhouse on a very hot day because there is nowhere a stream. And you are very thirsty and your canteen has been empty since 10 a.m. You have to knock on the door to ask the frightened peasant woman if she would be so kind as to fill your canteen at her tap. But they recognize a traveler on foot and give you Immediately not just water, but invite you, give you protection, give you the best of their stories, which they have not told anyone for three decades. The tourist in the corridor of the plane who takes dozens of photos of his fellow travelers in the air, has no deeper value. It only stores experience. For what? "

When Herzog pushes for what Chatwin calls the "sacramental aspect of walking," he interferes directly. "It's his term in office," he says. “I wouldn't call it that. I would be more careful. "He pauses and adds, as if he wanted to clarify one thing, in the simplest possible way:" Things that are existentially important, I would do on foot. "


Time with no beginning or end is not the same concept of age and era as the western world. The Australian Aboriginal belief in The Dreamtime, or Great Dreaming as it is known, can only be understood from afar by Western scholars. Equivalences have been drawn to the standard paradigms of creation mythology and schatology, the Aboriginal worldview that exists in a continuous unison of the infinite. But even in this context, the concept of dreaming – which was most often understood as a form of creative action, constant birth, continuation – has itself been questioned in recent years and largely declared as incorrectly translated by Aboriginal scholars, limited reduction of their worldview.

What used to be considered dream time no longer has an exact name. It can best be approximated, rather than accurately described, as the limitless ancestral gift of life that echoes across generations from the sacred ancients and their undefined world to the present and beyond. The life and the dream that life gives is – as Chatwin tried to clarify – guided by paths known as songlines.

If it seems incomprehensible from a theistic point of view, this is not least because it was never intended to be widely accepted. It was a secret world that Chatwin revealed – in many ways skepticism and outcry for his work on the documentary. He risked a lot of himself for what he put down in writing and for the images he attached to these concepts. To this day, the mere mention of his terms does not spur an end to the debate. But much of what we think we know about the Australian Aborigines, and about which we now know very little, would not exist for his work. Much of what he had recorded on his own records might have been wiped out had he not been there to document and change it as only he could.

Chatwin assumed that the human trust in the symmetry of the myth, contrary to the true efforts to understand the indigenous experience, causes a misrepresentation of the mystical status on the indigenous people. The term was controversial in its day and sparked criticism that wooed Chatwin by openly fictionalizing both his wandering travelogues and Aboriginal portraits. But history has caught up with the concept as personalities like Bruce Pascoe brought into mainstream these types of ideas that once angered the white power structures and colonial legacy of the West. Pascoe's most recent bestselling book, Dark Emu, suggests that the colonial projection of a primitive, nomadic cultural identity was never an accurate view of the Aboriginal people, who were more scientifically advanced in their traditional farming techniques than they were believed. Its melody is remarkably reminiscent of Chatwin's own. Likewise, Pascoe's work in independent collective farming, in which Native Australians are employed as full partners for the fruits of their labor, was last featured in the New York Times this week in a celebratory piece that by and large represents an advance on the last Chatwin graced the paper of the record-breaking pages – in an article in NYT Magazine Style 2017 that included half recognition for its collected fiction and half as a fashion editorial that could at best be described as utterly tasteless.

But by now it should be clear – this is what the West does best: decimate indigenous culture, box and filter it through our own little understanding, and what we cannot reconcile is called mystery. If only someone like Herzog could make sense of it.

"I can feel what you want to say," says Herzog. “But I'll say it more clearly. It's this New Age attitude, a kind of sentimental Aboriginal culture, and it's an abomination. Everything New Age is pseudo-babble, pseudo-philosophy. It makes me wince. "

Herzog has put his own time into a worthy representation of the Aboriginal world, in his overlooked, genuinely devastating painting from 1984, Where the Green Ants Dream, a representation of the Native American land rights movement that not only deals with the urgent dilemma of one completely indifferent west, in contrast to indigenous claims, overlaps sacred lands, but insists on recognizing such claims as impossible when the cultures themselves are unaffected or sometimes unfamiliar with financial definitions of property.

Chatwin himself has consulted on the film, and his influence is showing. In Nomad, one of the most noticeable moments of contrapuntal analysis comes from an Aboriginal scholar at the prestigious Alice Springs Library who is grappling with some inclusions in Chatwin's songlines as they are considered forbidden truths and intended only for Aboriginal people. Herzog himself is no stranger to this conflict. In Where the Green Ants Dream, a narrative court scene in which a sacred object is presented as evidence, the courtroom is played out by all spectators, and Herzog's own editing skips past the presentation of the object and only shows the description of the object by the Judge to the court stenographer.

In truth, Herzog says: "It was an invented sacred object, and what was wrapped in the blanket was just a piece of wood, it had no sacredness." Here he indicates that the inclusion of a prohibited object in his film, even outside the camera, would have been a disregard, a violation of the most basic levels of tribal law. It's a sense of dignity that Herzog gives his subjects and that he's had since his inception, and that feeling extends to more philanthropic endeavors like Grizzly Man, where he alone hears the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell's brutal death and leaves no other window to the Horror of this documented death, aside from his own silent face as he overhears the equivalent of a snuff movie soundtrack. "They don't document everything," he says when asked to speak on the point. “And you don't publish everything you have. Even in the case of Grizzly Man, when you died and were eaten alive, you can't tell. You have certain ethical limits, and of course everyone has to set those limits. I have to do it , just like you. When the World Trade Center burned people jumped hundreds of floors and landed next to the amateur videographers. None of it, none of it was ever published. They exist, but they don't publish. Because there is some respect for the dignity of You just don't touch it. It can't be touched. You may find public executions, beheadings, on the internet, but they shouldn't be happening at any time for any reason, so these images obviously don't belong in the public's hands . "

Chatwin died of AIDS at the age of 48, just two years after Cobra Verde was released. The film, an adaptation of the first of his three novels, the set of which he visited during his illness, is a flawed masterpiece and somehow fitting also Herzog's last Klaus Kinski collaboration. In his final words to Herzog, who visited him on his deathbed, Chatwin insisted "I have to be on my way again, but my backpack is too heavy," and then bequeathed his trusted backpack to Herzog and asked his friend to take it with him Space. Herzog does this and the backpack stays with him. When asked whether the souvenir has a reliquary or talismanic meaning, such as the “Brontosaurus skin” of Chatwin's childhood, Herzog waves this question aside. "No, no, no," he says. "Not right. I don't have the backpack as a talisman. I wear it. I used it. It's not a token. I wouldn't have accepted it as such. It kept me warm, surrounded by ice. I said to him," Bruce, if your backpack is too heavy, I can carry it. I am strong. "He said I should carry it."

The tactility over the intangible wins in the same way that both his and Chatwin's work was designed to entwine itself in this lifelong cause of demystification, paying tribute to the people in these places and people who were previously viewed as part of a lost era were. But this level of intimacy and softness between the two men is unlike any other relationship between Herzog and former subjects. With all the heart in his oeuvre, the pulsating solidarity with the most marginalized and drawn people, Herzog, the director, has never appeared so human. It is an incredible thing to watch someone so famous and almost on their pedestal describing their last moments with their dearest friend. The footage in Nomad of Chatwin's final days is terrifying to look at, but in Chatwin's mischievous eyes peeking out of gaunt creases, there is still the same sense of the undiscovered landscapes he sought beyond any end-state, and to which Herzog, A Kindred Spirit In every describable way his life's work has been dedicated to reading and playing. "I've read the landscape," says Herzog with a look in his eyes that sounds familiar. It's the same spark that flashed in chatwins in every picture of the man we see.

Chatwin's departure after an almost constantly uprooted, peripatetic time on earth feels somehow fair despite the obvious tragedy of a life barely started and with so much work still to be done. But it is as if there could be no other way that such a resilient life, such an insatiable embrace of the world's possibilities, could come to an end. In his every move there was a fire and a grace. He seduced, entertained and frustrated everything that happened to him. In every way he was the type of person without whom it is difficult to imagine the world. In this way, his death recalls the epitaph of the Bauhaus painter Paul Klee, whose tombstone reads:

I cannot be captured in the here and now, because my place of residence is just as much among the dead as the still unborn. A little closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough.

The storm we call progress continues, our visions of angels passing by as the locomotives of history, the hand of mankind on the emergency brake forever. How will this end? Unfortunately, like Chatwin's last written sentence, which the director read from Chatwin's own hand on the screen – "Christ wore a seamless robe" – the author of the film cannot provide a better insight. "It's a riddle," says Werner Herzog with a shrug.

But of his friend, the last of the two surviving adventurers, one who has promised to carry the backpack and carry on for both of them, says quietly after a long, quiet pause:

"I just miss him."

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin can currently be seen in the cinema and virtual cinema of Music Box Films.


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