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Mystic Without a Church

Werner Herzog’s new memoir provides a look back on the magisterial and occasionally maddening career of a cinematic visionary.

· 17 min read
Werner Herzog in 2011. Wikimedia Commons.
Werner Herzog in 2011. Wikimedia Commons.


Werner Herzog has lately turned to literature. He has always been a writer—his first books were published in the 1970s—but his writing was always part of some larger project. Only recently has he started to produce books that are meant to stand on their own. His first non-fiction novel, The Twilight World, was published in English in 2022, and it opens with a warning:

Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.

This could apply to everything Herzog has ever done, and not only as a writer. But now he has published a memoir, and for once he seems to have tried to tell the truth in a direct and straightforward fashion—Every Man for Himself and God Against All sticks closer to verifiable facts than anything else he has created to date. 

For years, Herzog has insisted that his written work will outlast his films. Yet this new memoir is only his second full-length book to be published in English, unless we count screenplays and diaries. And although he has lived in California for decades, he has elected to write it in German, his second language (his first being the Bavarian dialect he spoke until the age of 11). Still, the author’s familiar voice has been captured with typical panache by Michael Hofmann, who is renowned for his versions of Franz Kafka’s and Joseph Roth’s novels, and his occasionally hilarious essays (his notorious takedown of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, for example).

Herzog has been one of the world’s best-known living filmmakers for half a century now. In interviews, and as the narrator of his own documentaries, he is prone to making eloquently gloomy pronouncements on the brutality and meaninglessness of the universe, delivered in a thick Bavarian accent that makes him sound like a cross between a Biblical prophet of doom and a fashion designer with a hangover. Even people who have never watched one of his movies know what he sounds like.

His most famous monologue can be found in Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, which chronicles Herzog’s long struggle to make Fitzcarraldo (1982), a film about an obsessive Peruvian rubber baron who transports a 320-ton steamship over a steep hill in a dangerous part of the Amazon rainforest. During the making of that film, Herzog actually made his crew drag the massive boat through dense jungle without the aid of modern technology. Exhausted and frustrated by the ordeal, he told Blank that he saw the jungle as “full of obscenity”:

Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical [sic] here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain. 

The complete tirade consumes over three minutes of screen time. Herzog’s blunt matter-of-factness has helped to endear him to younger generations who may be unfamiliar with his best work. In 2006, while he was being interviewed on camera by English film critic Mark Kermode for BBC2’s The Culture Show, Herzog was shot with an air rifle. Kermode and his team were horrified, but Herzog blithely dismissed the danger: “It was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid.” Needless to say, this episode has been a hit on YouTube:

Sadly, not all of Herzog’s finest moments have been caught on camera. A few days after the air-rifle incident, the actor Joaquin Phoenix crashed his car in the Hollywood hills and found himself trapped upside-down in the wreckage, dazed and in need of a cigarette. Herzog emerged from nowhere, snatched away Phoenix’s cigarette lighter to prevent him from igniting an explosion, then smashed a rear window and pulled the actor through it. Before Phoenix could thank him, Herzog disappeared.

There is something almost too perfect about these anecdotes, and Herzog seems to understand this. He has the unerring instincts of a natural showman. If he didn’t, he would never have found financing for his more lunatic film projects. Still, he never tries to present himself as a hero. He relishes absurdity, and understands how and when to laugh at himself.  


Werner Herzog was born in Munich in 1942. His parents met at the University of Munich, where his mother, Elisabeth Stipetić, was completing a doctorate on the hearing of fish. His father, Dietrich, was a selfish and unreliable dreamer who believed himself to be a genius and talked incessantly about the intellectual masterpiece he was writing (although he seems never to have written a word of the text). Dietrich’s wives and lovers were expected to take care of his children, and otherwise leave him alone to create his monument of German thought. Herzog’s first 11 years were spent in sometimes extreme poverty in rural Bavaria, after his father abandoned the family to pursue his literary delusions. His mother worked hard to ensure that her children would turn out nothing like their father. There is a touching tribute to her in Every Man for Himself, and she sounds like an extraordinary woman.

Herzog is grateful to his father mainly for insisting on a rigorously traditional classical education. It was in his blood, it seems—Herzog’s paternal grandfather was a classicist and archaeologist with an imaginative and intuitive sense of landscape that he appears to have gifted to his grandson. One of the more interesting revelations in Herzog’s memoir is his own enduring love of Latin and Greek literature. He was never scholarly by nature, despite the unusually high number of academics and intellectuals in his family; temperamentally he was always more a man of action, albeit one with a strong autodidactic bent and a voracious appetite for books. Even now, he prefers to study ancient authors in the original languages. 

Readers of Livy and Plutarch will be fascinated to learn that one of Herzog’s heroes is the great Roman general known as “Fabius Cunctator” (280–203 BC), who is sometimes credited with pioneering guerrilla warfare. He earned the unflattering nickname “Cunctator” (“ditherer”) by delaying battle for as long as possible. To wooden-headed Romans, this tactic looked like indecision and cowardice until it finally ground down the invasion force of the Carthaginian general Hannibal during the Second Punic War (218–201 BC). After his death, the man who had been mocked as a procrastinator in life became celebrated as “the Shield of Rome.” It is ironic that a man who has made a film a year every year for over six decades is inspired by the example of a man nicknamed “the Ditherer.”

Herzog’s memory is a little hazy about exactly how he developed his ambition to become a filmmaker; it may well be that his literary ambitions were curbed by his inability to sit still for very long. By the age of 15 or 16, it was already obvious that film was his overwhelming passion. But unlike (say) Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, or the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, Herzog has always preferred making films to watching them. When he left school, he looked for courses of study that would give him access to filmmaking equipment and ended up with a scholarship to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But he dropped out almost instantly and travelled around America and Mexico, building up a stock of experiences and images that he would later explore in his work. He has been a full-time filmmaker since his early twenties.

Herzog was 13 years old when he first met Klaus Kinski, then a 26-year-old actor who was already winning acclaim on the stage. This would turn out to be one of the most important and consequential encounters of Herzog’s creative life. Kinski was dangerously unstable and prone to wild psychotic rages but he fascinated Herzog. Even as a 13-year-old, he was unafraid of Kinski, and he understood better than anybody else how to put up with his antics. So, he knew what he was getting into when, 17 years later, he hired him to star in his third feature film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). The two men would go on to collaborate on a further four films, but Herzog’s tolerance would be pressed to its limits over the years, even after the two men finally stopped working together.

Michel Houellebecq: Prophet or Troll?
Houellebecq depicts a Europe where French culture is a bad joke.

In Aguirre, Kinski plays a 16th-century conquistador who mutinies against his commander and then leads a doomed expedition down the Amazon into disease and madness. The final scene leaves Kinski surrounded by the corpses of his expeditionary crew, floating down the river on a makeshift raft overrun by monkeys as he rants about his future glory: “We’ll endure,” he snarls. “I am the Wrath of God. Who else is with me?” When the monkey he is holding shits itself, he tosses it aside like a banana peel. He will face his destiny alone. 

Herzog’s next film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), recounts the true story of a young man raised in captive isolation and then abandoned on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. Like most of Herzog’s work, the film is slow and atmospheric, but it is completely convincing in its depiction of Germany at the end of the Romantic era. Herzog seems to have a complicated relationship with this period—he clearly loves much of Romanticism’s literature and painting, but his sensibility and temperament clash in interesting ways with its philosophy. The figure of Kaspar Hauser continues to fascinate Herzog even now: the title of his memoir was also the film’s original title in German.

Herzog has a gift for working with actors, particularly non-professionals. The title role in Kaspar Hauser was played by Bruno Schleinstein (credited as Bruno S.), an eccentric self-taught street musician from a troubled background. Coaxing a performance out of this strange man required enormous patience, but the effort paid off: in the two films he made with Herzog, Schleinstein’s peculiar personality dominates the screen. Herzog seemed to intuit that his films would need someone onscreen who could compete with his own formidable charisma, which is perhaps why none of the films Herzog made without either Schleinstein or Kinski are quite as magnetic as those collaborations. 

Most of Herzog’s fans (and many film critics) assume that the Kinski protagonists in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are the filmmaker’s alter-egos. But Herzog has always maintained that he is more like Kasper Hauser, the uncivilized but sensitive foundling who spent the first 17 years of his life chained up in a basement dungeon with only a toy horse for company. Nevertheless, it is true that Aguirre and Kaspar Hauser both established the pattern for all of Herzog’s subsequent non-documentary output. Which isn’t to say that he made the same two films over and over again. Rather, he identified his main themes and obsessions early on and has yet to exhaust them as sources of inspiration—madness, isolation, thwarted grandeur, and misdirected talent that leads to self-destruction. Even when his heroes do succeed, it is mainly through obsession and mania.

Despite being the brother of a noted stage director and an occasional opera director himself, Herzog claims to loathe artificiality and theatrical conventions. He loves reading plays, but he hates going to the theatre and actually sitting through them. Nevertheless, his masterly 1979 adaptation of Georg Büchner’s 1836 play Woyzeck remains his most perfect film. That same year, Kinski would deliver his most astonishing performance in Nosferatu the Vampyre, Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, which Herzog regards as the greatest of all German films. Kinski is made up to look like a rat (or perhaps a chihuahua with its hair waxed off). Other actors have emphasised the erotic qualities of Dracula by turning him into a sort of Byronic hero. Kinski’s vampire is nakedly sexual but also melancholy, pathetic, and repellent. He casts such a shadow over the film that you don’t notice how little screen time he has—perhaps 20 minutes of the film’s 107-minute running time. Herzog was willing to put up with a lot of grief to achieve results of that quality.

From a technical point of view, Herzog has always been an old-fashioned filmmaker. There is nothing ostentatious about his style, which favors long static takes and minimal editing. The results are often hypnotic and indisputably cinematic. At its best, his work communicates a sense of horror and beauty that cannot be reproduced in still photographs, and he developed a particular genius for capturing emotion and atmosphere in desolate landscapes. But that preoccupation with the mesmeric image sometimes caused his narratives to suffer. Herzog’s grasp of dramatic structure and pacing can be surprisingly shaky, and even his most impressive films have occasional longueurs. Because he is such an intuitive filmmaker, he prefers to follow his impulses without scrutinizing them too closely, and he doesn’t always manage to bring the audience along with him. But that is a price he has been happy to pay in pursuit of his singular vision.

Cobra Verde (1987) was the last of the five films Herzog made with Kinski, and it displays the best and worst of the filmmaker’s approach. The story is based on The Viceroy of Ouidah, a 1980 novel by Herzog’s friend Bruce Chatwin, an idiosyncratic English travel writer, novelist, and kindred spirit. As with all his literary adaptations, Herzog manages to remain reasonably faithful to his source material whilst transforming it into something that could not have been made by anybody else. 

The story’s titular adventurer and bandit is sent from Brazil to West Africa on a mission meant to end in certain death. Instead, he survives, helps to overthrow the King of Dahomey, and becomes a powerful slave trader. At the height of his power, he belatedly denounces the slave trade and dies on a beach, guilt-ridden and insane, as he tries to drag a boat into the water. Unfortunately, the intensity of Kinski’s performance is not really matched by the rest of the cast, and the film often sags when he isn’t onscreen. There is still a great deal of visual beauty to enjoy—particularly in the West African sections—and the heat and humidity is palpable. Sometimes, it is possible to forget the story and enjoy the film as a fascinating ethnographical documentary about long-lost monarchies. 

But in the end, Cobra Verde adds up to considerably less than the sum of its impressive parts. Herzog often seems to lose the thread of his narrative, which can be difficult to follow if you haven’t read Chatwin’s novel. As a result, the film doesn’t always make much dramatic sense as Herzog gets carried away by his (admittedly entrancing) images. At some points, the dialogue is too self-consciously literary; at others, a fondness for authentic inarticulacy produces dramatic confusion. Great personal discipline does not always result in artistic discipline, and Herzog’s resistance to traditional dramatic norms occasionally verges on the pathological, particularly where straightforward storytelling is concerned.

After all, we don’t watch Herzog’s films in search of anything conventional. Those of us who enjoy his work relish spending time with his idiosyncrasies and trying to discern the personality behind his often-bizarre spectacles. In some ways, his body of work resembles that of writers like Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo—glorious messy and occasionally exhausting talents whose unflagging energy and invention couldn’t always prevent them from writing 60 skippable pages in a row. Yet perseverance is rewarded in the end. There isn’t a film in Herzog’s vast output that isn’t touched somewhere by genuine inspiration. He is like the antithesis of Stanley Kubrick, whose films were the product of meticulous planning and preparation. Herzog has always preferred the unpredictability of serendipity and happy accidents, thriving on the power of chaos and his ability to bring it under control for a while. 

Despite this mystical reverence for the reliability of his own creative intuitions, Herzog is less an autocrat than a captain. He has always encouraged his actors to improvise, and often gave them no choice to do otherwise. His scripts are usually short imagistic templates rather than conventional screenplays, and he carries the most important elements of his productions in his head. This apparently cavalier approach to making movies was originally a matter of financial necessity rather than choice, but it quickly became an integral part of his working method. 


After Cobra Verde, and the end of his relationship with Kinski, Herzog increasingly turned his attention to documentaries, and his oeuvre became more contemplative without necessarily softening its obsessive fixations. Cobra Verde seems quite sane and gentle compared to Herzog’s extraordinary 1990 documentary Echoes from a Sombre Empire, which deals with the Central African Republic’s brutal dictatorship of Jean-Bédel Bokassa after he seized power in a 1979 coup. The film is nightmarishly surreal, despite the fact that Herzog has invented nothing, not even the cigarette-smoking chimpanzee at the end of the film. 

The most successful of Herzog’s later documentaries was Grizzly Man (2005), which tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a star athlete who developed a drinking problem and heroin addiction when he moved to California to become an actor, before reinventing himself as a kind of guerrilla eco-activist. Treadwell spent 13 summers in Alaska living among the grizzly bears, filming them in their habitat, and treating them as his friends, until one of them killed and ate him and his girlfriend in 2003.

The film and its subject matter are pure Herzog, even though most of it consists of footage shot by Treadwell himself. The additional interviews Herzog shot with those who knew and worked with Treadwell are oddly stilted, but they are nevertheless a testament to the filmmaker’s great charm. Herzog’s ability to win the trust of his interlocutors yields unexpected and even alarming revelations, particularly when the camera is allowed to run for a little too long. And Treadwell emerges as a fascinating character, whom Herzog treats with a mixture of bemused curiosity and affection. But in the end, he offers a quietly devastating judgment on his subject’s worldview over footage of a bear that Herzog speculates “might have been Treadwell’s murderer”:

Perfection belonged to the bears, but once in a while Treadwell came face to face with the harsh reality of wild nature. This did not fit into his sentimentalized view that everything out there was good and the universe was in balance and in harmony. Male bears sometimes kill cubs to stop the females from lactating and thus have them ready again for fornication. ... [Treadwell] seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility, and murder. ... What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy—I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears, and this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend; a savior.

Herzog’s deadpan delivery of these lines is unforgettable, and it has spawned countless imitators. The funniest of these is probably Paul F. Tompkins’s comedy routine “If Werner Herzog Reviewed a Trader Joe’s on Yelp.” Viral videos like these helped Herzog to become a familiar face on the American chat-show circuit, where he would delight audiences with his dry observations, weird anecdotes, and gnomic pronouncements about nature’s barbarism. During an interview with Paul Cronin (first published in Herzog on Herzog in 2002), he famously intoned:

Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creatures in the world.

Two decades on, this seems less like an opinion than a bit, and interviewers routinely invite Herzog to develop his persona by asking him about avian intelligence, hoping to hear him expand his thoughts into a full diatribe. He knows that, for American audiences, he is now essentially an entertainer, although unlike (for example) Orson Welles, he has never allowed himself to degenerate into a mere raconteur. He has managed to keep working. 

And Herzog’s output is now enormous: he has averaged a little over a film a year for the past six decades. The inevitable result has been an uneven and sometimes repetitive body of work. He blurs the line between fiction and documentary a little too often, and he sometimes makes films purely to satisfy a longstanding desire, without thinking too hard about what even a sympathetic audience might want to see. His 2018 documentary Meeting Gorbachev seems to have been an excuse to meet its subject, whom Herzog evidently admires so warmly that the film sometimes feels like an excuse to get his autograph. 

Still, Herzog continues to develop as a filmmaker. His 2010 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a passionate love letter to the prehistoric cave paintings that have fascinated him since his childhood. The French government allowed Herzog unprecedented access to the Chauvet Cave in southwestern France, which boasts some of the oldest figurative paintings in existence in a near-perfect state of preservation. Even now, he seems excited that he got a chance to see them up close—he devotes an entire chapter of Every Man for Himself to his obsession with caves. This is thrilling to read, perhaps because he focusses more on the obsession itself than the object of that obsession. Similarly, as a writer, he seems to be at his best when simply communicating his love, rather than trying to describe what he loves. 

Another of Herzog’s lifelong obsessions is volcanoes—he has made four films about them and can’t stop looking at them once they erupt. The best of these is probably The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft (2022). His 2019 film Nomad, which explores his friendship with Bruce Chatwin, is somehow even more engrossing than Herzog’s 1999 documentary My Best Fiend, an affectionate but pitiless tribute to his volatile creative relationship with Klaus Kinski. Each film is a tribute to people who have been dead for decades, and Herzog manages to convey warmth without lapsing into nostalgia. Evidently his affections run deep. Yet in his memoir, he never quite knows how to discuss the things and people he loves, except obliquely or indirectly. 


Herzog has told his own life story more than once before; throughout this memoir, he assumes that the reader knows who he is and will already be familiar with his work. Those who are new to him might be better off starting with Paul Cronin’s 2014 Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (an expanded version of Herzog on Herzog), since this memoir serves mainly to enrich the more straightforward account of Herzog’s life that has been repeatedly rehearsed in interviews. In some ways, this volume is a prose sequel to My Best Fiend. But Every Man for Himself and God Against All is worth reading for its own sake, not least because it provides the most revealing glimpse of Herzog’s inner life that we are likely to see.

Herzog’s mysticism remains an enigma even to himself. At 14, he converted to Catholicism, despite his misgivings about salient aspects of Catholic dogma. Seventy years on, he still can’t explain this phase in his life, and he doesn’t seem to remember the details very well. In any case, it didn’t last long. Although he retained a hunger for something that transcended everyday reality and sought discipline to tame his unruly streak, the restraints of traditional Catholicism, and the need to obey and submit to authority, appear to have driven him away. Today, Herzog is a sort of religious mystic without a church or even an obvious belief in God. His precise stance on theological, metaphysical, and spiritual matters is as mysterious to him as to anyone who has ever tried to piece together a coherent philosophical vision from his films. If anything is sacred to him, it is walking, a passion he shared with his late friend Bruce Chatwin. Travelling on foot has a kind of spiritual significance for him that he has never been able fully to explain.

Herzog’s memoir is least interesting when it repeats familiar anecdotes about the making of his films. The ordeals involved with bringing Fitzcarraldo to the screen are already well-documented, not only in Burden of Dreams and My Best Fiend, but also in Herzog’s 2009 book Conquest of the Useless, which collects his personal diaries from the shoot along with some later reflections. Every Man for Himself is at its best when it adds depth and further details to these old stories, not least Herzog’s continuing regret that his production manager Walter Saxer never received enough credit for his work on Fitzcarraldo.

Every Man for Himself and God Against All is the work of a man who won’t stop working any time soon. Now in his eighties, he remains restless and artistically fertile. If he is now turning towards literature, it may simply be because writing books is easier on the knees than guerrilla filmmaking. His latest book, Die Zukunft der Wahrheit (“The Future of Truth”), was published in February and will no doubt soon be translated into English. The first chapter of Herzog’s memoir, titled “The Stars, The Sea,” is a vivid, evocative prose poem recounting one of his formative memories. This is almost Herzog at his best, but all his literary work so far lacks the element that has elevated even his gloomiest and most melancholy films: his magnificent sense of humour. If he finds a way to bring this into his written work, then he might create the kind of literature that outlasts his work as a director, just as he has predicted.

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