Every Man for Himself and God Against All
Werner Herzog's epic, irreducible memoir
I'd rather die than go to an analyst, because it's my view that something fundamentally wrong happens there. If you harshly light every last corner of a house, the house will be uninhabitable. It's like that with your soul; if you light it up, shadows and darkness and all, people will become "uninhabitable." I am convinced that it's psychoanalysis—along with quite a few other mistakes that has made the twentieth century so terrible. As far as I'm concerned, the twentieth century, in its entirety, was a mistake.
Don’t bother reading this essay. Go and listen to Werner Herzog regale his life to you, the lucid clop of his German accent guiding you through his fevered dream (he never, ever dreams except once a year of maybe a sandwich). Fine, read this essay, but know this: Werner Herzog’s memoir is irreducible. I will not summarise it. I will not review it. I will but share the embers that burned hottest against my flesh.
Yes, he reads the audiobook of his memoir himself and I cannot imagine that you would prefer to read it instead (what, with your own inferior internal voice?). Sit beside him in the night, at the edge of the abyss, and listen.
His tale is relentless, moving, surreal, funny, beautiful. A marathon through childhood grit in post-war poverty and the acts of creation and vagrancy that threatened his life countless times. Three wives and three children are strung across this odyssey like gems wrestled from the ether along with the rest of his treasure.
The fact all my children turned out well is no thanks to me but to their mothers.
He is unequivocal about the luminary role women played in his life.
Women always played a dramatic role in my life, no doubt because there were deep feelings involved. But I never really saw the great mystery and agony of love. My relationships were hardly ever superficial. I was driven by the demon of love, but without women, my life would have been nothing much. Sometimes I try to imagine a world without women. It would be unbearable, impoverished, a tumbling from one void to the next. But I was lucky in love, presumably luckier than I deserved to be.
They too could at time be figures out of Grimm fairytales.
[M]y lover prior to my first trip to the United States seemed later in her life to be under a curse. She kept attracting misfortune. She had two children with my cousin, but the marriage broke up. Her subsequent relationships also ended badly. In the end, she jumped to her death off the Grosshesseloher Bridge. In old photographs of us together, we always look perfectly serene, with a lightheartedness that has no suggestion of the coming catastrophe. I am still upset with myself for somehow having deserted her in my time in the States without having had the courage to tell her.
Herzog is a singular creature born of the Bavarian forests and mountains. This is the world he came from (quoting from his grandmother’s journal from when she was a young girl in Prussia in 1891):
Father's estates with their large forests, were home to many wild animals. Wild boar dwelt in the great oak forests, and even a number of wolves. Sometimes when we rode through the forest in the evening, the horses became nervous, and if you looked about you, you might see a pair of green eyes glinting in the undergrowth. Every year there was a great wolf hunt. The government had offered a bounty for every wolf that was shot. As long as there were wolves, there were also cubs. The foresters on their forays would sometimes come upon a wolf's lair with cubs. While the old ones were away in the night hunting for food, the foresters would pick up the cubs, put them in a sack, and empty them out in our room, where we children would jump about for joy and play with the babies and tease them until they howled. It ended with their death. Their ears and claws were attached to a piece of card, and when this was sent to the government with a claim, the reward was paid out.
Both his parents had been Nazis. He was close to his mother, who epitomised the thanklessness of the mother’s burden. An early Nazi, she abandoned the project as it was heading to defeat. Against this backdrop, he engaged with his first black person, an American, who emerges like a friendly creature of the forest:
She wasn't a racist, and I remember how encouraging she was when I got pally with a member of the American occupying forces, the first Black person I had ever met. Before that, there were only the blackamoors from fairy tales. But this man was tremendous, a huge presence in my memory like the basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. I remember the warmth of his voice; there was nothing but warmth to him. Whenever I meet Africans or African Americans, there is always an echo of this soldier for me.
His father had been and remained a more enthusiastic Nazi, albeit a charismatic sort:
The roots of my father's Nazism are in his enthusiastic membership of the student brotherhoods that since the early nineteenth century had been an engine of the German Reich. Because he had studied at various universities, he belonged to no fewer than four different corps, all so-called dueling fraternities, which meant that their members fought ritualized duels in which they cut each other's faces with sharp foils or sabers, which resulted in so-called dueling scars or honor scars that were visible from some way off. My father was proud of the scars he had on his face… The scars gave my father a dashing look, and then he was always tanned and looked more like a pirate than a professor. He was incredibly learned on all sorts of subjects, had an astonishing memory, and could talk the hind legs off a donkey. All that made him a bit of a charmer, a ladies' man… After the war, both my parents were put through "de- Nazification," and for years after, my father was still bitter that Germany had been defeated and that an American lifestyle was coming to dominate West Germany. American barbarism, as he termed it, nettled him.
They were not close. He is ultimately an inverted, shriveled figure.
My father was a marginal figure in my life; I never had to assert myself against him to attain my independence. Nor was [conversion to Catholicism] a matter of replacing an absent father with some higher substitute as though I had missed his love. It's a familiar phenomenon, boys-girls too-having difficulties when there is a dearth of love and intimacy in their lives. In my case-indeed, in the case of us all-we had the obverse: a father who was not loved. Not one of my siblings from the first or second or third litter had any affection for him; even his three wives turned away from him. In the case of the third, that's an inference I draw because she conspired against him with my mother and with Doris. His sister detested him; even his own mother, my grandmother, would never talk about her son, Dieter; he was always just the asshole.
“Listen, boys, if I could cut it out of my ribs, I would cut it out of my ribs, but I can't. All right?"
The poverty of Herzog’s childhood is palpable. He doesn’t seem all that perturbed by it, but it sounds grim in the telling.
My brother Till and I grew up in extreme poverty, but we never even knew we were poor except perhaps in the first two or three years after the end of the war. We were simply always hungry, and my mother was unable to produce enough food for us. We ate salad from dandelion leaves; my mother made syrups from ribwort and fresh pine shoots; the former was more a house remedy for coughs and colds, and the latter stood in for sugar. Once a week, there was a longish loaf of bread from the village baker purchased with our ration coupons. With the point of a knife, our mother scratched a mark in it for each day, Monday to Sunday, allowing about a slice of bread for each of us. When hunger got to be very bad, we were each given a piece from the next day's ration because my mother hoped something might turn up in the meantime, but generally the bread was finished by Friday, and Saturdays and Sundays were particularly bad. My deepest memory of my mother, burned into my brain, is a moment when my brother and I were clutching at her skirts, whimpering with hunger. With a sudden jolt, she freed herself, spun round, and she had a face full of an anger and despair that I have never seen before or since. She said, perfectly calmly: “Listen, boys, if I could cut it out of my ribs, I would cut it out of my ribs, but I can't. All right?" At that moment, we learned not to wail. The so- called culture of complaint disgusts me.
Poverty was everywhere, and this didn't strike us as at all unusual except at certain rare moments. In the village school, with four classes taught simultaneously in one room, there were children from poor upland farms that were situated higher up the valley. One of them, Hautzen Louis, was invariably late every single day. I think he had to work in the cowsheds at home before it got light, which always made him late. In winter he came bombing down the hill on a sleigh, and every day he was covered in snow from head to foot. Class was long since underway. Without a word, dragging the icy sleigh behind him into the classroom, he trudged past Fräulein Hupfauer, our teacher, and every day he had the same explanation: "Miss, I fell off." I don't remember his face, but one day in early summer, when Louis was sitting there in his jacket, which smelled of cowshed, and the teacher told him to take it off because it was far too warm, Louis pretended he didn't hear her. He failed to react to the ever-angrier admonitions of the teacher and finally got a rap on the knuckles with her cane… Louis was still unwilling to take off his jacket, and all of us in the classroom, perhaps twenty-six children all told, girls and boys between six and ten, started to notice. That made his predicament worse, and he started silently sobbing. The silence of his crying still squeezes my heart today. Finally, Louis took off his jacket; underneath was the only shirt he owned. It was so worn and ragged that the sleeves hung off his shoulders. The teacher began to cry too and put the jacket back over him.
He had a sense of self early.
There was one moment that is fresh in my memory in all its detail: a film producer had reacted positively to an outline I sent, but I knew I mustn't on any account show myself. I was fifteen at the time but physically still a child, a growth spurt and puberty came late. The negotiations took the form of an exchange of letters, then there was a phone call. I think it was probably the first phone call in my life; I was desperate not to be seen. Today, it's hard to imagine. But finally, all the procrastination had to end. I was summoned to their Munich offices. In the anteroom stood a heavy quasi-antique camera from the thirties on a mighty tripod. The secretary looked at me in surprise. I was ushered into a large splendid office. Leather chairs, a heavy walnut table, two men at it, the two producers. Both looked past me into the anteroom, craned their necks; it was as though someone had visited them and brought his kid and hadn't personally shown up yet. But there was no one behind me. It took them a few seconds to understand. I was about to introduce myself, but I didn't get a chance because one of the producers started laughing aloud and slapping his thigh. Then the other stood and laughed in my face: "Oh, they want to make films in kindergarten now!" Without a sound, I turned on my heel and walked out. I didn't waste a second feeling sorry for myself. I just thought: These people are cretins and don't have a clue about anything. My resolve only strengthened inside me. Looking back, I am nothing but grateful that nothing came
Herzog’s confessed superpower is to always recognise people who can milk cows. He cannot stand to introspect nor to look himself in the mirror and to this day does not know the colour of his own eyes. Jack Nicholson is a massive Lakers fan with a “shit-eating grin”. Herzog loves San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, but only as it once was and not as it’s become (I’ve only seen what it’s become and I love it too). He ate his own shoes in front of an audience to fulfil a promise. He is suspicious of tree huggers and yoga for five-year-olds. The Oxford English Dictionary, the Florentine Codex (a recording of Aztec society in its last days) and the decoding of Linear B (an ancient Minoan dialect found on clay tablets) are man’s supreme achievements.
Los Angeles where he lives “is the city with the most substance”, for its films and technology and musicians and mathematicians and writers. “The number of Mexicans has greatly enlivened writing and music.”
Los Angeles has its dark sides too. Once, while I was being interviewed by the BBC, I was shot at and slightly wounded in front of the camera. To me, it felt like a bit of local folklore. A few days later, I rescued Joaquin Phoenix, who had happened to crash on the highway right in front of me, from his upside-down car. I think he was in withdrawal and presumably shouldn't have been driving. Hanging upside down between fully inflated airbags, he refused to hand me the lighter he was trying to light his cigarette with. He didn't notice that there was gas leaking everywhere. I never mentioned it, and only when Joaquin reported it in the media did I confirm it.
When asked to cameo on the The Simpsons, Herzog assumed it was a comic strip. He had never seen the show.
When I finally looked the show up, though, The Simpsons was so wild and anarchic that I felt a certain kinship.
On walking: again and again (and again), the significance of the world is derived from tiny details never otherwise noted; this is the stuff from which the world may replenish itself. At the end of a day of walking, the wealth of a single day is past counting. When you walk, there is nothing between the lines; everything is in the most immediate and rabid presence: the fences, the meadows, the birds not yet fledged, the smell of newly chopped wood, the puzzlement of the deer.
Whenever I’m on particularly challenging shoots, I always have Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible in a facsimile reprint with me. I draw comfort from the Book of Job and the Psalms. I also have Livy’s account of the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BC, beginning with Hannibal’s departure from North Africa and his crossing the Alps with elephants, an enterprise of spectacular daring.
And he knows of calamity. Each of his films is a trial. I could not even by a single line shorten the retelling of these episodes from the shooting of Fitzcarraldo:
Our calamities were perfectly concrete and palpable. We suffered two plane crashes, each of them single-engine Cessnas, one with stores, the other with several Indigenous extras on board. The latter crash was caused by a twig flying up and getting caught in the elevator at the tail of the machine, causing it to loop the loop. Everyone in it was hurt, and one person was left paraplegic. That weighs on my heart to this day. We later set him up in a general store we built for him in his village to provide him with an income. One of our woodsmen was bitten by a snake, a shushupe, the most poisonous of all. He knew that his heart and lungs would be lamed within sixty seconds and that the camp with our doctor and the serum was twenty minutes away, so he picked up his chain saw and cut off his foot. He survived. Three of our local workers who had gone upstream on the Cenepa to fish were ambushed by Amahuaca people in the dead of night. The Amahuacas were a seminomadic tribe based in mountain country ten days upriver. They had violently refused any contact with our civilization, but because we had been experiencing the driest dry season in living memory, they had followed the drying river course downstream, presumably hunting for turtle eggs. They shot our men with arrows almost six feet long and struck a man in the throat with a foot-long razor-sharp bamboo point. The young woman lying at his side was awoken by the gurgling sound, thought a jaguar had her husband by the throat, and grabbed a still-glowing branch out of the fire. At that moment, she was struck by three arrows that were probably also aimed at her throat. One drove into her stomach and broke off against her pelvis, and one just brushed the edge of her hip bone. The third member of the party had a shotgun, which he fired blindly into the dark. The attackers fled. The next morning, the unhurt man brought the two wounded parties back to our camp, and we decided to operate on them there and then because they would certainly have died if we had attempted to move them. Our doctor and the excellently trained local helper operated on the kitchen table, and I helped, holding a powerful pocket lamp to light up the stomach cavity of the woman. In my other hand, I held a can of insect repellent, with which I held at bay great clouds of mosquitoes drawn by the smell of blood. Both patients pulled through. The man who had arrived with the arrow through his neck and lodged in his shoulder could speak only in whispers after he was healed. Les Blank filmed him after the operation. He appears briefly in Burden of Dreams.
Just two days later, we filmed the unmanned ship-one of the two identical twins-being hurled through the rapids of the Pongo de Mainique. It bounced off the rocks on either side with such force that I saw the lens flying out of the camera. I tried to hold on to Thomas Mauch, the cameraman, but we went flying after the lens, and he struck the deck, the heavy camera still in his hand. The force of the collision split the webbing between his two last fingers deep into the palm of his hand. He too was stitched up by our gifted Indigenous assistant paramedic, who was extraordinarily deft with dislocations and stitching up wounds, and had once put Mauch's dislocated shoulder back, but because all the anesthetics had been used up in the hourlong operations on the arrow victims and couldn't be replaced for some time, Mauch suffered great pains. I held him in my arms, but that didn't help much. Finally, I called in one of the two working girls we had employed, Carmen, who squeezed his head between her breasts and talked to him softly. She did it lovingly, magnanimously, and heroically. It may sound like a strange thing for a film production, but even the Dominican priest from the missionary station at Timpia, fifty kilometers downriver, had insisted that we have prostitutes in our company because otherwise, with the number of male woodcutters and canoeists, there was every risk of attacks on the local populations.
Let me finish with an extended vignette, one that seems to obsess Herzog, a kind of semi-erotic Borgesean monstrosity. One suspects his entire story is a figment of his fantastical universe as much as it may correspond with something you or I might see. And the tale of of the twins Freda and Greta Chaplin is no different.
I want to make a feature film about the twins Freda and Greta Chaplin. In 1981 they had a short run in the British "red tops," or tabloid newspapers, and were famous for a few weeks for being the "sex-crazed twins" who were so infatuated with their neighbor, a lorry driver, that he took them to court and had a restraining order taken out against them. Their story is unique. They are the only identical twins we know of who speak synchronously.
We know that twins sometimes develop their own secret language when they are all alone by which they can exclude the rest of the world, but Freda and Greta spoke the same words at the same time. I have had the experience where they open the door, greet me, and ask me inside, all completely synchronous in word and gesture. I suppose this type of a conversation could be a ritual developed by practice. But later on, they answered questions they can't have been expecting absolutely in unison. Sometimes they spoke separately, then Freda, for the sake of argument, would speak the first half of a sentence, at which point Greta would chime in with a word or two in unison, and then bring the sentence to a conclusion herself. Or the other way around. They wore exactly the same clothes, hairstyles, shoes. Their handbags and umbrellas were identical; they were as coordinated as a Rorschach test ready to be folded in two at any moment. When they walked, they didn't walk in step like soldiers, left-right, left-right, but they had their inside feet together and kept time with their outside feet. It was the same with their handbags, which they didn't both carry in their left hands; they carried them in their outer hands and their umbrellas with their inside hands. You could have folded a picture of them, and the two halves would have matched. Their gestures were synchronized, their physical awareness of each other continuous. Who was left and who was right in sitting or walking was for me the only way of telling which one was Greta and which was Freda at our early meetings.
For everyday matters, they needed help from social services. For instance, they were unable to open a can of sardines because that was something that couldn't be done with four hands. They got in a tangle, screaming in a hysterical frenzy. Vacuuming was just as problematic. They would go through the room side by side with all four hands on handle and tube, but when the two worn upholstered chairs were too close together and they couldn't both push through the gap, they would get stuck and suffer a nervous breakdown. Some other things, like brewing and pouring tea, had been settled and were resolved in clear and unchanging rituals.
They had grown up in Yorkshire, and to go by their statements, it seems likely that their tyrannical father had an incestuous relationship with them both. Presumably that was a reason for them to withdraw and begin a sexual relationship with their neighbor, the lorry driver. They would meet him in the garden shed that was on the line between their two properties. For several years, according to their statements, that went satisfactorily until the man one day declared that he wanted to get married and the secret meetings would have to stop. The twins couldn't stand this. They ambushed their former lover and bombarded him-synchronously- with obscenities. They threw themselves in the way of his truck. They pulled the driver down from his cab and beat him-synchronously-with their handbags. In court the presiding judge allowed them to make their statements simultaneously. Any attempt to have them separately in the witness stand would have driven them wild. They spoke in a chorus, gesticulated synchronously, and in their agitation, they cried out in parallel with their index fingers jabbing the air in the direction of their accuser: "He's lying; don't you hear he's lying; the bucking fastard is lying!" They had both simultaneously made the same slip, "bucking fastard" for "fucking bastard." Bucking Fastard will be the name of my film. The accuser won his case, and the twins were given a suspended sentence of one month and told to keep their distance from the truck driver. Exposed to the pitiless British gutter press, they were finally taken in by a retired textile engineer who let them his attic. But their tragedy was not yet over. Downstairs there was a small business whose proprietor was all of a sudden interested in them. At night he clambered up onto a roof alongside their apartment to watch them undress. He fell one night, and the first time I visited the twins, he had both legs in casts. A trainee in the same firm, a punk, had intercepted one of the sisters, Freda, on her way from the yard up to the attic, wrestled her to the ground, and cut off her plaits, probably to make her identifiable. Whereupon her sister Greta had cut off her own.
Because they lived out of public view, the only way I was able to track them down was via a newspaper photograph of the building they were living in. A street sign in the background was legible, a crossing of two streets; and I saw the name of the firm, a perfectly ordinary name that filled two pages of the London phone book, but combined with the street name, it allowed me to find the right address. The internet as such didn't really exist yet. The twins replied to a letter from me, and from the first moments, we had a profound connection. Because they almost never went anywhere, I asked them to a restaurant, but that seemed to freak them out. Maybe fish and chips then? I had seen a chippie around the corner from their house. That seemed to suit them better, but they still dithered a while in unison. "All right, we'll go there," announced Greta, who seemed to have the role of foreign secretary while Freda was more the home secretary. Greta normally began their letters; she wrote the first couple of lines, then immediately after, Freda wrote the same lines all over again. Later on in the letter, there would be big spaces between words; Greta would begin a line with her right hand at the left edge of the sheet and Freda wrote at the same time with her left hand from the right edge, not backward but word for word into the middle of the page. The two parts of the line would meet in the middle and form a continuous sentence. As we were going out, they said that I should wait a moment while they got themselves ready. They didn't come back down. Twenty minutes passed. After half an hour, I went to check up on them. The door to the bathroom was open, and I must describe what met my eyes. In front of the mirror, Greta was tying on her headscarf, and it must have taken ten seconds until her reflection did something unexpected, not synchronous: a hand reached out from the mirror and tucked a strand of hair under the headscarf. But there was no mirror; the twins were using each other as a reflection, standing facing each other and doing the same thing. After a series of meetings with them, I had to break off contact with them because there were unmistakable signs that I was on their emotional radar. Both have since died. Greta died of cancer, and Freda outlived her by thirteen years. Not a day passed that she didn't visit her sister's grave.
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