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Werner Herzog’s Own Ecstatic Truth

Werner Herzog directs Bruno S. and Brigitte Mira in Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974)

On November 1, 1974, the picturesque Bavarian town of Dinkelsbühl hosted the world premiere of Werner Herzog’s fourth feature, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle. After winning the Grand Prix, the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury in Cannes, the film arrived in the States with a new title, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Now Herzog and his translator, the poet and critic Michael Hofmann, have given the original title to the filmmaker’s new memoir, Every Man for Himself and God Against All.

There is undoubtedly a good number of people who have never seen a single one of Herzog’s thirty-four documentaries or twenty fictional features who could nevertheless pick him out of a lineup or immediately recognize that apocalyptic voice if he were to give them a cold call. They may have seen him as the icy ex-Soviet prisoner Zek Chelovek in Jack Reacher (2012) or heard him deliver a condemnation of our species on Rick and Morty, but it’s more likely that they’ve seen the memes: the Yelp review, the mashup of the jungle rant from Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) and A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), the now-dormant @WernerTwertzog account, etc. Herzog is fully aware of the persona he projects, and he clearly enjoys playing it up to the hilt.

It’s “virtually impossible to read his memoir,” writes Farran Smith Nehme in the Wall Street Journal, “without hearing that voice in your head. Fortunately, that is no bad thing.” For the most part, Every Man for Himself is laid out thematically rather than chronologically, but Herzog does write “a great deal,” notes Nehme, about his childhood, “a convention that can be dull, but not when the life is like this one.” Not long after he was born in Munich in 1942, Herzog’s mother discovered the infant’s body covered in broken glass after an Allied bombing. She moved with Werner and his brother to Sachrang, which Herzog describes as “surely the remotest place in all Bavaria.”

The fatherless trio survived on a single loaf of bread per week, nibbling dandelion weeds and cooking up syrups from pine shoots. Nehme picks out a choice quote: “‘We learned not to wail,’ he says, adding, in one of the most biting lines in the book, ‘the so-called culture of complaint disgusts me.’” Stories both familiar and new follow: stealing his first camera from a film school in Munich, leaping into a cactus patch to bond with the cast of Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), hauling a 320-ton steamship over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo (1982), and so on.

“On practically every page,” writes Becca Rothfeld in the Washington Post, “he is scything through the jungle, trudging up remote mountains or narrowly evading arrest in one of the war-torn countries where he stubbornly persists in filming, no matter the dangers, in a quest to secure the perfect shot. He recounts near-fatal exploit after near-fatal exploit with unwavering sang-froid, as if it is perfectly natural, even inevitable, to pursue the impossible to the brink of death.”

“I don’t believe a word,” declares Dwight Garner at the top of his review of Every Man for Himself in the New York Times. It’s not that Garner hasn’t gotten a kick out of reading the book. He wraps the review with a selection of “choice morsels”—“Occasionally, I watch trash TV because I think the poet shouldn’t avert his eyes,” for example, or: “Purple imaginings settled over me”—but like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, suggests Garner, “Herzog is an old-school, concierge-level bluffer. And ham. He won’t tell you the truth, not quite, unless it falls out of his pocket accidentally, as if it were a cigarette lighter.”

Herzog might counter by elaborating on his famous notion of the “ecstatic truth,” the idea that, as he puts it in the book, “truth does not necessarily have to agree with facts.” Go ahead and claim, as he does at the end of his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that radioactive albino crocodiles slumber in the valley near the Ardeche River in France. They don’t, of course, but this “ecstatic truth” echoes harmoniously with the awe conjured by humankind’s first works of art rendered in three dimensions throughout the first hour of the film.

“The idea of cinéma vérité is a historical mistake,” Herzog tells documentarian Alex Gibney. “We are directors, dammit! Otherwise the surveillance camera in the bank would be the greatest of all cameras.” The exchange comes in a collection of Herzog’s answers to questions gathered by the Guardian’s Tim Lewis. Some are popped by readers, others by names we all know: Wim Wenders, Nicole Kidman, Ken Burns, Claudia Cardinale. Herzog tells John Waters that Even Dwarfs Started Small is “arguably my deepest film.”

Herzog tells Lewis himself that for forty years now, he has been “preaching to deaf ears that my writing will arguably outlive my films, all of them.” Talking to Emily Bobrow in the WSJ, he says, “There’s no one who writes like me, no one.” Naturally, then, at the age of eighty-one, he intends to carry on. His next book, due next year, will be The Future of Truth. “It’s wild storytelling,” he tells Variety’s Peter Debruge, “but it’s also contemplation about the nature of truth in cinema and in history, politics, and artificial intelligence.”

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