David G. Hughes on Werner Herzog’s ‘Nomad: In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin’ (2019)
“Bruce didn’t tell a half-truth, he told a truth and a half,” says Nicholas Shakespeare, the biographer of the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin. Even if director Werner Herzog did not describe his relationship with Chatwin as one of “kindred spirits”, the biographer’s summation would be enough to draw a parallel between the writer and the filmmaker. Both Chatwin and Herzog are wanderers by trade, attracted to the wilderness and the eccentrics who live amongst us. Crucially, both are willing to engage in what John Grierson coined, “the creative treatment of actuality” for the purpose of articulating, in Herzog’s phrase, “ecstatic truth”. The unique perspective of oddballs are crucial to this pursuit, and now Herzog has turned his camera towards the vision of his friend and spiritual ally who passed away from AIDS-related illness in 1989. Bruce Chatwin, like bear-lover Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man (2005), volcano-scholar Clive Oppenheimer of Into the Inferno (2016), and countless more in the Herzog pantheon, are individuals of unique countenance who doggedly pursue Herzog’s imagination and from whom, it seems, we can learn to see anew.
Known chiefly during the 1970s and 1980s through bestselling works such as In Patagonia (1977) and The Songlines (1983), the Man Booker Prize-nominated author has served as an influence to countless authors since, including William Dalrymple and recent UK Prime Minister hopeful, Rory Stewart. He is perhaps Herzog’s most famous curiosity. Yet, in true Herzogian fashion, there is no reverence or convention applied to the story; it is less a biography and more about “mythical tales into voyages of the mind,” following in the writers footsteps by visiting “the landscape of his soul” – Patagonia in South America, the Black Hills of Wales where he “found his inner balance”, and the arid Australian Outback to learn of Aborigine songs and their intimate connection with the land, which fascinated Chatwin.
One of Herzog’s chief strengths as a filmmaker is his lack of self-consciousness, a solemn personality trait that has lead an irony-obsessed world to make a meme out of the man. While this earnestness, this prolific confidence, runs the risk of parody and feeling formulaic, they say that the artist paints the same picture over and over again, in constant search of something. Perhaps with the exception of Terrence Malick, no more is this the case in filmmaking than with Herzog – the Bavarian septuagenarian poet-rambler; you become, should you be willing, a co-adventurer, armed with the same unspoken questions and the pursuit of ecstasy. His second strength as a filmmaker is the way in which he attracts or unearths all the outlandish mystics, zany poets, strange gurus and religious misfits. During the forays into these aforementioned locations, these strange characters and curiosities present themselves – blindfolded people in Wiltshire interested in the paranormal energy of a Neolithic complex, recalling similar scenes from Bells from the Deep: Faith and Superstition in Russia (1993), or Aborigine’s who believe that the land is covered in song and chant and growl to traverse and “reinvigorate sights”.
Yet, the film never completely lives up to its self-stated grandiose ambition to “follow an erratic quest for wild characters, strange ideas and big ideas about the nature of human existence”. This is particularly so when it comes to the central theme of the film: nomadism. Like Chatwin’s unpublished work, The Nomadic Alternative, in which he lays out his philosophy of walking, the film fails to articulate or explicate Chatwin’s theory or, indeed, Herzog’s own. While they touch upon the notion that humans are innately nomadic creatures and that “the world presents itself to those who walk”, little else is expounded upon. Perhaps, like the Aborigine songs that contain knowledge forbidden to many, there are some things best unspoken, unelaborated. But one cannot help but crave more.
Nomad sits comfortably on the latter-day Herzog mantlepiece alongside recent documentaries such as Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Death (2011), and Encounters at the End of the World (2007). The form remains similar and untested, continuing to employ drone photography to good effect, usually accompanied by primal chants or orchestral music over moody landscapes (Herzog is an opera aficionado and asks if the Aborigine songs are as powerful as Wagner). A wandering structure, seemingly fragmented and lacking discipline, is pure impulse and bipedal impetus, replicating the experience of walking into the unknown.
The strong autobiographical proximity to Herzog’s own life makes Nomad a somewhat significant entry that even displays new contours of Herzog’s otherwise dispassionate manner. One should hesitate to call it “personal” when talking about a filmmaker who seems to craft all his films from the wellspring of his soul, but it’s also quite something to see Herzog engage in uncharacteristic nostalgia when indulging in anecdotes, or begin to tear up when recollecting the memory of his friends passage into death. It is perhaps a theory of death, not of nomadism, that concerns Herzog – of finding the right way to die and of continuing the legacy of friends consumed by time, here embodied by a weary and quite beautiful leather backpack that Chatwin wore on his travels before Herzog himself adopted it. This explains Herzog’s obsession with imprints, indexical traces of things past, lyrically eulogising on Chatwin’s last written words held in his hand, and photographing ancient handprints of prehistoric nomads in a reminder of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). It is perhaps for this reason that Herzog’s medium is cinema, the index art par excellence.
Here is a small film, but a rather grandiose one. It doesn’t feel at all rushed, but is short and economical. Truth does indeed sit somewhere between a contradiction, and Herzog is a filmmaker showing us that we do not live in what is fashionably termed a “post-truth” world, but an ever-present pre-truth with ecstasy within grasp, should we be willing to walk into it.
Screened as part of 2019 Sheffiled Doc/Fest