Behold the immensity! Werner Herzog on the set of his 2006 film Rescue Dawn. Image: Metro Goldwyn / Alamy

Mr Infinite

We all contain multitudes—but none so much as the German film director Werner Herzog
November 21, 2023

Werner Herzog is the rare artist—Nick Cave is anotherwhose audience seems to get larger and younger as time goes by. His first film, known as A Lost Western, was made in 1957. Sixty-six years ago! Across seven decades he has created a body of work—fiction and non-fiction (and literary non-fiction too)—that gets described as “Herzogian”. His occasional co-writer Herbert Golder parses the adjective as “mankind’s relentless struggle to find meaning, despite the indifference and hostility of the universe.” He has directed a Wagner opera in Bayreuth, Beethoven’s Fidelio at La Scala. He has also appeared in Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian and in The Simpsons.

Herzog is now in his eighties, but has already finished three features since the pandemic. About meteorites, volcanologists, the human brain. Just published is his memoir—the spectacularly (and Herzogianly) titled Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Really, what an extraordinary life. When he was just two weeks old, his mother found him in a cradle layered with glass and rubble after a neighbouring building was hit by Allied bombs. Later, after the family had decamped to a Bavarian village in the Alps, she roused him from his sleep and led him up a mountain slope to gaze at a nearby town that was being reduced to embers. He describes it, in language that foreshadows Lessons of Darkness (1992), his depiction of the blazing oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait, as “a vast inferno tracing the terrible pulse of the end of the world on the night sky.” He adds, “Not that I was afraid of it; I was curious to know it.”

Herzog is a poet of scale. “Behold the immensity!” cry out his films. The speed and magnitude of the social changes he has lived through are, he claims, without precedent. When he was young, the fields around him were mown by scythe-wielding hands; later, he witnessed the transition not just to horse-drawn machines and then tractors, but to robots planting seeds in greenhouses. He grew up poor: without running water, dried ferns for a mattress, no Saturday-morning outings to the pictures. Marshall Plan packages were a boon; they contained corn flour as well as a Winnie-the-Pooh book which his mother (a former Nazi sympathiser) would read aloud to him.

Herzog’s austere upbringing made him resourceful. He learned to tickle trout (the better to catch them), milked cows, was a pot welder, stacked planks, did a stint as a parking warden at Oktoberfest. Aged 23, and using the sobriquet El Alamein (an allusion to the German defeat in North Africa), he rode bullocks in a Mexican rodeo arena. Years later, he set up the Rogue Film School, a weekend-long seminar in which he taught students the art of lockpicking, travelling on foot, and the “neutralisation of bureaucracy”. He’s on the side of anarchists and the self-authorised, of those who would walk (as he did) 1,000 miles to propose to a lover. He thinks the best decision he ever took, against professional advice, was to set up his own independent production company.

Anyone lusting for inside stories about Herzog’s turbulent relationship with Fitzcarraldo actor Klaus Kinski should stick to the director’s 1999 film My Best Fiend. Personally, I was delighted to read about how, in the late 1950s, he lived with his girlfriend, four Nigerians and three Bengalis in a terraced house in Manchester; his friendships and encounters with Ryszard Kapuściński and Bruce Chatwin, two other writers who explored the turbulent landscapes of post-Empire and the Global South; his fondness for Bayern Munich striker Thomas Müller (“he identifies space like no one else”); his rapport with boxer Mike Tyson, who turns out to be very knowledgeable about the Frankish dynasty of the Merovingians and the beginnings of modern Europe; his preference for truth over facts (“I never see the truth as a fixed star on the horizon but always as an activity, a search, an approximation”).

Some reviewers have bemoaned what they feel is Herzog’s lack of introspection or psychological scrutiny. He has an answer—“I’d rather die than go to an analyst. If you harshly light every last corner of a house, the house will be uninhabitable.” What makes Herzog’s work so valuable is everything that keeps it out of step with contemporary art cinema: its embrace of infinitude, vastness, the cosmic; its openness to deep time, dream time, purple imaginings; its fascination with geology, astronomy, a pre- and post-human planet. Herzog has always been huge. It’s the movies that got smaller.