Friday, February 13, 2015

Of Walking in Ice

A few days before Bruce Chatwin's death in January 1989 he asked Werner Herzog to visit him.  They shared a belief in the restorative powers of walking and Chatwin was convinced that Herzog had healing powers.  Too weak now to rise from his bed, Chatwin nevertheless longed to be out on the road again.  Herzog's account of their conversation appears in Nicholas Shakespeare's biography Bruce Chatwin (1999).  'He looked down at himself and he saw the legs were only spindles and he looked at me in this very lucid moment and he said: "I'm never going to walk again." He said: "Werner, I'm dying." And I said, "Yes I am aware of that." and then he said: "You must carry my rucksack, you are the one who must carry it."  And I said: "Yes, I will proudly do that."'

In 1978 Herzog had published a short book, Vom Gehen im Eis (Of Walking in Ice) that had particularly impressed Chatwin.  'At the end of November 1974', Herzog wrote in its preface, 'a friend from Paris called and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die.  I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took my jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities.  My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.'  Herzog set off from Munich and arrived twenty days later, exhausted, to sit by her bedside.  Lotte Eisner made a recovery and lived on until 1983. 

I have created a map that tries to give a visual impression of this elemental journey, through snow and ice (white), rain and water (blue), mist and fog (grey) and the occasional burst of sunshine (yellow).  You can click on each square for a short quote from the book and imagine them read in Herzog's familiar voice: 'The snow lies wet on the fields, darkness comes, all lies barren...'  The black circles record the places he found to sleep: a barn, a stable, a few inns, abandoned buildings and empty holiday homes.  It would of course be possible to derive many alternative maps from the text, marking, for example, moments of physical pain and exhaustion, or fleeting, strange encounters with Herzogian characters, or those points in the narrative where the account of his walk dissolves into descriptions of dreams.

'A rainbow before me all at once fills me with the greatest confidence.  What a sign it is, over and in front of him who walks.  Everyone should walk.'
- Werner Herzog, Thursday 5th December, 1974


David Mannion said...

A lovely story, thanks. I have been enjoying Herzog again...some of the films were on Film 4 recently.

Papierflieger said...

Herzog's book is one of the most interesting German texts on walking.
It's a typical Herzog. Two years before at the age of only 30 he had published/survived his first film with Kinski (Aguirre).

The book can be read in two hours (112 pages). The descriptions of German landscape and people in the winter of 1974 are subjective and true at the same time.

The spontaneous,ritual long distance walk to save the life of Lotte Eisner is more of an internal journey and circles around Herzog, his feelings and thoughts.

The meeting with Eisner at the end of the book is only a very short paragraph which sees Herzog much embarrassed. He can't say much to Eisner who seems equally happy that Herzog survived (she heard about Herzogs walk via phone), who asks her to open a window in the hospital room as he knows that he can fly since a couple of days.

One should not forget that this text was written
decades before all the "walking stuff" became really popular.

Eddie Procter said...

Nice post Andrew and a great book - uniquely Herzog. I enjoyed the map, its a very quotable book!

I imagine that you have read Herzog on Herzog by Paul Cronin, which also includes some interesting Herzogisms on landscape and place:

"These are the landscapes I try to find in my films, the landscapes that exist only in our dreams".