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Forbidden Truths, the Symmetry of Myth, and a Friendship Uninterrupted by Death: Werner Herzog on Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

“Beware, O wanderer, the road is walking too.”

— Jim Harrison

For anyone — show of hands now — locked in an all too familiar, selfsame cycle of recurrent dread, it’s no great mystery that cinema can (and maybe even should) offer familiar, welcome respite. Allowing a sense of escape while borders are closed, cinema’s palliative possibilities also remind us of our unsteady balance, as we strive to outlast whatever this current period is. 

In this mode, patience is currency. Yet, confined to our spaces and neighborhoods, we are all prone to a sense of restlessness. In the course of the last half year, there has been no shortage of incisive yet tired articles in our wellness media, entreating the public to quiet and bestill all anxious consciousness. In this pandemic moment, we are encouraged to admonish ourselves for yearning to be elsewhere even as a reckoning with the natural world is increasingly imperative for mankind’s survival.

But if this restlessness has any recent universality, like the borderless contagion which has prompted it, then what of the wanderer who before all of this never felt at home to begin with? And what of those who never once felt anything even close to resembling right, in staying put? 

Early on in his new film Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, a portrait of his late friend and collaborator, a seemingly tireless Werner Herzog returns to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia, near the southern extreme of the Western Hemisphere. There to revisit a magnetizing place to which the British travel writer and journalist felt so drawn as to leave behind a rather prestigious life as head of antiquities at Sotheby’s, Herzog reads the landscape. Foregrounded in the frame is the wreck of a vessel that somehow stands in every visible way identical to when an enchanted Chatwin himself first photographed it for his first book, In Patagonia, nearly 50 years prior. 

The matchcut of these frames amplifies the abandoned ship’s ghostly air. The body of the ship’s hull does not appeared to have withered in these near five decades, as if time has somehow been forbidden to pass. The waters have not swallowed it, nor has its frame fractured during what storms surely must have passed through this vital channel, the Strait of Magellan, connecting two oceans. Rather, it simply rocks there, gently, solemnly hanging on in the breakwater, a fragile monument, withstanding the erosion of age and defying all toll of the elements. 

Herzog’s camera next finds itself focused on the free surface in the water, and in the shapes cast by wind upon the shallows, it is impossible not to see these ripples, scattered about the fetch near the prow of the ship body, as anything other than snakelike, animus shapes. These rivulets fleet about, running beneath the surface, as a kind of otherworldly remnant, emblematic of great natural mystery. These forms can be explicated, but why should they be? It is an irreal image, of a kind we have come by now to expect from Herzog. And, as with his most stunning and brutally elegant work, it is not necessary to come to any defense of the image. It is in fact an image’s greatest asset that stands as its own justification — its captivating self. No other living director has so adhered time and again to this patient methodology.  

***

Herzog himself is smiling and warm when reached via video at his home in Los Angeles. “You recognized somebody like him from miles away,” is the most apt description of Chatwin Herzog can offer. “And our worldviews were not dissimilar.” Chatwin’s humor, his gift for mimicry, his observations of life’s absurd and comedic happenstances, at times fixated upon the strange and those considered by previous generations to be freaks, certainly align perfectly with Herzog’s similar qualities. 

As straightforwardly framed and steadily paced, the portrait of Chatwin that emerges here is a loving one. “I didn’t work on it at all,” Herzog claims, when asked about the project’s history. “But it was in a way dormant in me.” The film, commissioned by the BBC upon  the occasion of a 40th anniversary of Chatwin’s passing last fall, Herzog says, “…was a no brainer. I immediately said yes, sure, I’d do it — Because I know I’m the right one. It didn’t need research. I only went back into some of his books and warmed myself up to the prose that he had written.” 

Herzog holds that save for this commission, he would not have been pressed to reexamine his bond with Chatwin. “I don’t need to revisit the relationship,” he says. “He and I were so close, on our own individual wavelengths, that he has always been a part of my intellectual, artistic setup. He’s always stayed with me.”

To this day, there is truly no other body of writing quite like Chatwin’s. His work — beginning with early books such as The Songlines and In Patagonia — functions not only from a naturalist viewpoint but also from a mindset that considers the longevity and livelihoods of Tribal peoples and Native cultures the world over to be constantly at risk. In both Chatwin’s view and the picture’s, the destructive lineage the Western world has had on these cultures is beyond dispute and still extant. As Herzog himself says in the picture, “They’re living in their last days.” 

Chatwin loved Herzog’s overly broadcast dictum “Tourism is sin, travel on foot virtue,” which has by now become so oft quoted it borders on being a facile understatement of Herzog’s work’s intentions. The affection between the two fellow travelers could not have been more mutual. “He loved Of Walking in Ice,” Herzog says of Chatwin, referring to his journal of a fabled foot trip from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974, to the bedside of the ailing Cinémathèque Française founder Lotte Eisner, the voice of his chilling Saharan mirage documentary Fata Morgana. “He kept it with him in his rucksack, in his travels. He had a few books with him, and it was one of his tiny consolations. When he was utterly exhausted, one of his last was a tiny piccolo bottle of champagne. When he was completely down, somewhere in the desert, low on provisions, really at his end, he would pop open the little champagne. His last line of defense.”

In light of the common thread between their sensibilities, Herzog’s foregrounding in Nomad of sightseers frequenting the discovery site of a mylodon skin becomes all the more tragic. As a child, Chatwin was captivated by a curio in his grandmother’s household — she called it “a piece of brontosaurus skin,” but it was really a swath from the hide of a mylodon, a long extinct, giant ground sloth,  preserved in Patagonia before one of Chatwin’s mariner ancestors transported it to England. Chatwin swore that he would one day see the spot of that sloth and, years later, left his employer only a single-sentence, heroic note to explain his absense: “Gone to Patagonia.” And here they are,  Chatwin and Herzog, years later, as visitors from foreign lands pose beside what is now a reconstruction of this prehistoric beast. These tourists trade one camera for another, making absolutely sure they have every possible snapshot taken on every possible device. Can such a photographic ritual even begin to relicate a true, experiential bond with a place, with land, with history? “I’m asking myself this whenever I’m on a plane and passengers are snapping millions of photos of themselves in their seats,” says Herzog. “Then in the Coliseum or the Taj Majal, the selfies, selfies, selfies, all somehow reaffirming their presence in the world, but not experiencing the world at all. It’s delegating experience into a stored, digitized memory. It’s quite contrary to those who travel on foot.”

When he speaks of traveling on foot, Herzog isn’t being in some way poetic or philosophizing. He’s not reminiscing, he’s advocating. Though the line of speech can feel at times like a greatest hits — these are words we’ve heard him say many times before — they hold even more resonance now, spoken in the context of a portrait of his late comrade, another wandering, nomadically principled being.

“When I traveled on foot, I went without any camera,” Herzog says. “For both Chatwin and me, it meant you don’t carry a household with you. No cooking utensils, no bathmats. You are exposed. You have to knock at the door of a farmhouse on a very hot day, because there’s nowhere where there is a creek. And you are very thirsty, and your canteen has been empty since 10 in the morning. You have to knock on the door, to ask the startled farmer’s wife if she would be kind enough to fill your canteen at her faucet. But they recognize a traveler on foot, and they would immediately not only give you water, but invite you in, give you shelter, give you the best of their stories, that they haven’t told to anyone for three decades. The tourist in the aisle of the airplane who takes dozens of photos of his fellow travelers being airborne, they don’t have any deeper value. It’s just storing experience away. For what?” 

When pressed on what Chatwin referred to as the “sacramental aspect of walking,” Herzog cuts directly in. “It’s his term,” he says. “I would not refer to it that way. I would be more cautious.” He pauses and adds, as if to make one thing clear, in as simple a wording possible: “Things that are existentially important, I would do on foot.” 

***

Time without beginning or end is not the same conception of age and era as the Western world holds. The Aboriginal Australians’ belief in The Dreamtime, or Great Dreaming, as it has been known, can still be understood only remotely by Western scholars. Equivalences have been drawn to the standard paradigms of Creation Mythology and Eschatology, the Aboriginal worldview existing in a continuous unison of the infinite. But even within this framework, the notion of Dreamingwhat has most commonly been understood as a form of Creative Action, of Constant Birth, of Continuation — itself has been drawn into doubt in recent years, largely now decried by Aboriginal scholars as a mistranslated, limited reduction of their worldview.

What was previously thought of as the Dreamtime now has no exact name. It can best be approximated, and not precisely described, as the limitless Ancestral gift of life, reverberating across generations, from the sacred ancients and their undefined world, into the present and beyond. Life and the Dreaming that gives life, is — as Chatwin attempted to clarify — channeled across pathways known as songlines. 

If it seems beyond understanding from a theistic perspective, that’s in no small part due to the fact that it was never meant for broad acceptance. It was a secret world, which Chatwin helped to expose — in many ways earning skepticism and outcry for his work in documenting it. For what he put down in writing, and the images he attached to these concepts, he risked much of himself. To this day, the mere mention of his terms spurs no end of debate. But for his work, much of what we think we know about the Aboriginal Australians, and what now we still know very little of, would not exist. Quite possibly, a large part of what he included in his own record would have been extinguished, were he not there to document, and to alter it, as only he could.

Chatwin posited that humanity’s reliance on the symmetry of myth, as opposed to true endeavors to understand the indigenous experience, creates a false transposition of mystical status upon Native peoples. The notion was controversial at its time and brought about criticism which Chatwin courted by openly fictionalizing both his wandering travelogues and Aboriginal portraitures. But history has caught up with the concept, as figures like Bruce Pascoe have brought these types of ideas, once upsetting to white power structures and the colonial legacy of the West, to the mainstream. Pascoe’s recent bestselling book Dark Emu suggests that the colonial projection of a primitive, nomadically rooted cultural identity was never an accurate view of the Aboriginal Australians, who in fact were far more scientifically advanced in their traditional agricultural techniques than they have been given credit for. Its tune is remarkably reminiscent of Chatwin’s own. Likewise Pascoe’s work in independent collective farming, which employs Aboriginal Australians as full partners in the fruits of their labor, was most recently profiled in this week’s New York Times, in a celebratory piece that is, by and large, a step forward from when last Chatwin graced the paper of record’s pages — in a 2017 NYT Magazine Style section writeup, half recognition for his collected fiction, half fashion editorial, which at best could be described as completely tasteless. 

But by now, it should be clear — this is what the West does best: decimate Native culture, box and filter it through our own minor understandings, and what we cannot square, call mystery. If only someone like Herzog could make sense of it.

“I sense what you are trying to say,” Herzog says. “But I say it clearer. It is this New Age attitude, a kind of sentimentalizing Aboriginal cultures, and it’s an abomination. Everything New Age is pseudo-babble, pseudo-philosophy. It makes me cringe.”

Herzog put his own time into a dignified portrayal to the Aboriginal world, in his overlooked, truly devastating 1984 picture Where the Green Ants Dream, a portrayal of the Native Land Rights movement that intersects with the pressing dilemma of an entirely indifferent West, not only opposed to Indigenous claims to sacral lands, but insistently deeming such claims as impossible to acknowledge when the cultures themselves are unconcerned, or at times unfamiliar with financial definitions of property. 

Chatwin himself consulted on the film, and his influence shows. In Nomad, one of the most striking moments of contrapuntal analysis comes from an Aboriginal scholar at the renowned Alice Springs Library, who struggles with some inclusions in Chatwin’s Songlines, as they are considered forbidden truths, and intended only for Aboriginal eyes. Herzog himself is no stranger to this conflict. In Where the Green Ants Dream, a telling courtroom scene where a sacred object is presented as evidence plays out with an elision, the courtroom cleared of all spectators, and Herzog’s own edit jumpcutting past the object’s presentation, showing only the judge’s description of the object to the court stenographer. 

In truth, Herzog says, “It was an invented sacred object, and what was wrapped into the blanket was just a piece of wood, it had no sacrality to it.” Here he intimates that the inclusion of any forbidden object in his film, even off camera, would have been a disrespect, a transgression of the most basic levels of Tribal law. It’s a sense of dignity that Herzog gives to his subjects and has since his beginnings, and this sense extends to more crowd-pleasing efforts such as Grizzly Man, where he alone listens into the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell’s brutal demise and allows no other window to the horror of that documented death aside from his own silent visage as he eavesdrops on the equivalent of a snuff film soundtrack. “You don’t document everything,” he says, when asked to speak on this point. “And you don’t publish everything you have. Even in the case of Grizzly Man, when they were dying, and being eaten alive, you cannot give it away. You do have certain ethical boundaries, and of course, everyone has to establish these boundaries. I have to do it, just as you do. When the World Trade Center was burning, people jumped from hundreds of floors and landed next to the amateur videographers. None of it, none of it was ever published. They do exist, but you do not publish. Because there has to be a certain respect for the dignity of one individual’s death. You just don’t touch it. It must not be touched. On the internet you may find public executions, beheadings, but these should not happen anyway, for any reason, at any time, so of course these images don’t belong in the hands of the public.”

Chatwin passed away due to an AIDS-related illness at the age of 48, just two years following the release of Cobra Verde. The film, an adaptation of the first of his three novels, whose set he visited while ill, is a flawed masterwork, and somehow fittingly, also Herzog’s last Klaus Kinski collaboration. In his last words to Herzog, who visited him on his deathbed, Chatwin insisted “I’ve got to be on the road again, but my rucksack is too heavy,” then bequeathed his trusty pack to Herzog, demanding his friend carry it in his place. Herzog does so, and the rucksack stays with him. When asked if there is some reliquary or talismanic significance to the keepsake, such as the “brontosaurus skin” of Chatwin’s childhood, Herzog waves this question away. “No, no, no,” he says. “Not correct. I do not have the rucksack as a talisman. I wear it. I used it. It’s not a token. I would not have accepted it as such. It kept me warm, surrounded by ice. I said to him, ‘Bruce, if your rucksack is too heavy, I can carry it. I am strong.’ He meant me to carry it.” 

The tactile over the intangible wins out in a same way both his and Chatwin’s work were destined to intertwine, in that lifelong cause of demystification, and dignifying the human in those places and people hitherto considered part of a lost era. But this degree of intimacy and softness between the two men is unlike any other relationship between Herzog and previous subjects. For all the heart in his oeuvre, the pulsing solidarity with humanity’s most marginalized and put upon, Herzog the director has never before appeared so human. It is an incredible thing to watch someone so storied and near pedestaled in his persona struggle to describe his final moments with his dearest friend. The footage in Nomad of Chatwin’s last days is harrowing to behold, but in Chatwin’s mischievous eyes, peeking out from gaunt folds, there is still, beyond any terminal state, that same sense of the undiscovered landscapes which he sought, and to which Herzog, a kindred spirit in every describable way, has devoted his life’s work to reading and playing. “I read the landscape,” Herzog says, with a look in his eye that seems familiar. It is that same spark that flashed in Chatwin’s, in every image of the man we see. 

Chatwin’s departure, following a near constantly uprooted, peripatetic time on earth, feels somehow righteous, despite the obvious tragedy of a life barely begun, and with so much work left uncovered. But it is as if there could be no other way such resilient living, such unquenchable embrace of the world’s possibilities, could find its end. There was a fire and grace in his every move. He seduced, entertained, and frustrated all he encountered. He was in every way the type of person you have a hard time imagining the world without. In this way, his death calls to mind the epitaph of the Bauhaus painter Paul Klee, whose gravestone reads —

I cannot be grasped in the here and now, for my dwelling place is as much among the dead as the yet unborn. Slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough.

The storm we call progress continues, our visions of angels looking on as the locomotives of history pass, humanity’s hand forever on the emergency brake, tensing. How will this end? Sadly, like Chatwin’s last written sentence, read onscreen by the director from Chatwin’s own hand —“Christ wore a seamless robe”the film’s author can provide no greater insight. “It is a mystery,” Werner Herzog says, with a shrug. 

But of his friend, in closing, the last of the two adventurers, one who survived, who promised to carry the rucksack and continue on for them both, says softly, after a long, quiet pause — 

“I just miss him.”

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin is currently in theatrical and virtual cinema release from Music Box Films.

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