A beautifully presented account of Herzog’s work, Kristoffer Hegnsvad’s book finds its purpose in both its design and in its sense of affiliation. Hegnsvad is a documentary filmmaker as well as a writer, and so that even if much of what Hegnsvad says will seem familiar to those who know well Herzog’s films and the various things the great director has to say about them, Hegnsvad brings to the material an experiential wonder, a sense that Herzog so consistently goes where most documentary filmmakers fear to tread. By giving us a feeling of following in a master’s footsteps, he reveals how original Herzog happens to be; how often he would venture into the previously unknown and make it familiar through strength of personality and constitution. 

The book opens in 2016 in a hotel in Munich: Hegnsvad has signed up to Herzog’s idiosyncratic film course – The Rogue Film School – where the forty or so burgeoning filmmakers will not so much learn about technology as forego their own. Herzog insists, “no telephones, no computers, no dictaphones, cameras or other recording equipment.” (p. 7) When Godard reckoned all you needed to make a film was a girl and a gun, he was assuming that the camera was a given. Herzog seems to see the camera as a necessary evil, often no more than a device one needs to tell the stories he loves to tell and depict the travels he insists on embarking upon. Hegnsvad notes that Herzog rarely calls himself a director, “more often he describes himself as a chronicler, or a storyteller in a Marrakesh marketplace.” (p. 8) His purpose is to convey to his students the importance of sensibility rather than the pragmatics of tech and structure. “Not all his films are well-wrought narratives” Hegnsvad says, and the burden of proof would be on Hegnsvad to give an example of one that was well-wrought. After all, Herzog has always been more interested in the burden of dreams, finding those images which sit within us and must be found out there in the world, rather than clean and smooth plots. 

Pauline Kael when looking at Herzog’s The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) reckoned “there’s something of a contradiction involved in using modern film technology to argue against learning in favor of an innocent response to nature;  a filmmaker is not exactly a hewer in wood.”1 But Herzog is a paradoxical filmmaker rather than a contradictory one, aware that film is modern but its images needn’t be and film can be an excavatory device to bring forth what has thus far been barely discovered. As Hegnsvad tells us, and Herzog has often insisted, “what is relevant is the creation of a new image, a moment of ecstatic truth.” (p. 47) Yet Herzog insists this isn’t a Romantic truth he seeks, and it may be why we can see his relationship with technology as paradoxical rather thane merely contradictory. “At the Rogue Film School, Herzog doubles down on his denial of being a Romantic by declaring: ‘Romanticism is an important phenomenon but it does not describe my work.’ He wants to borrow from the critique of the reasonable and the rational. He doesn’t want this to cross over into a glorification of the unreasonable and the irrational.” (p. 98) 

Such a claim might be difficult to escape when looking at so many of Herzog’s characters, who are often irrational, mystical, insane, or intellectually limited. In Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Aguirre is the megalomaniac determined to take over an expedition in the process of finding El Dorado; in Stroszek (1977), the title character is beaten, pushed around and bullied without the wherewithal to defend himself using any form of verbal acumen; in Heart of Glass (1976), the local factory owner and the people go crazy when they lose what they perceive is the magical quality of glass-making. The eponymous figure in Fitzcarraldo (1982) wants to open an opera theatre in the middle of the jungle with little sense of an audience nor very aware of the near-impossibility of the task. Herzog might wonder, however, if the heart has reason that reason doesn’t know, in Pascal’s formulation, and that to follow one’s passions and obsessions, to feel that there are reasons beyond the calculative and the causal, shouldn’t be too quickly dismissed as irrational. 


Instead one must seek out the rationale behind Herzog’s work, and what better place to start than by ignoring it altogether and discussing a well-known moment where Herzog willed causality and denied technology. The much loved and legendary film critic Lotte Eisner had suffered a severe stroke and Herzog decided rather than getting on the next plane to Paris, to walk from Munich to her place in the French capital. “I walked against her death, knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there.”2 She was indeed alive and lived for another decade but the quality of her life was very poor. She was nearly blind, couldn’t walk and couldn’t go out and see films anymore. She told Herzog that she was tired of living and wondered if Herzog’s walk had cast a spell on her that damned her to eternal life. Herzog said jokingly that he would remove the spell and three weeks later she was dead.

Did Herzog’s walk keep her alive; did his remark about releasing the spell allow her to die? Anybody making such claims would be regarded as an irrationalist, a superstitious throwback, but while we cannot know whether Eisner would have died if Herzog got on the plane, and would have lived for much longer had Herzog not released her from the spell, we do know that after the walk she was still alive, and died shortly after Herzog said he no longer wished her to live. Anybody wishing to prove that he wasn’t responsible for her life and death would be on weaker empirical ground than Herzog. To understand Herzog’s work is perhaps to comprehend something of counterfactuals. We cannot know what would have happened if Herzog had got on a plane because he didn’t — we just know that he walked from Munich and Paris and found Eisner still alive. Herzog isn’t quite claiming if he got on the plane she would have died; he is merely saying that he didn’t and she lived. 

Hegnsvad references Jacques Rancière and notes “we are, by and large, in agreement on the most essential values in our society: various high-minded ideas about democracy, freedom of speech and equality before the law. But we no longer think about or reconsider these values. We take the value of the majority for granted […] any kind of what Rancière calls dissensus, or disagreement – are suppressed or even segregated.” (p. 63) Dissensus contains essays written by Rancière between 1996 and 2004 and we might wonder if in the 2020s a little consensus might not be such a bad thing. But certainly Herzog’s “dissensualism” is not about fervent mass opposition, but chiefly idiosyncratic individualism – rather like the penguin in Encounters at the End of the World (2007), who goes off on its own direction no matter how suicidal its solitude may become.  

Vital to Herzog’s vision is the privileging of personal insight, “to the life force of the curious, path-breaking genius, [yet it] is not an argument for casting all our scientific truths onto the bonfire” (p. 68), Hegnsvad says. But it is nevertheless to insist on truths that are not scientific. Better to see Herzog’s cinema as pre-scientific rather than anti-scientific, to see that what interests him is a way of looking at the world which predicates instinct over probability, the spontaneous over the preconceived. Thus Herzog’s work can seem original in its search for the originary; to see what sort of instincts have been covered over by civilisation and viewing cinema as a time machine that traverses space all the better to find temporal pasts. “Give us adequate images. We need adequate images,” Herzog says, offering the remark, as Hegnsvad notes, while eating his own shoe, keeping a promise he made to Errol Morris that he would do precisely this if Morris went out and made a film: Gates of Heaven (1978). Even in such an instance, which can resemble the outer reaches of reality TV, Herzog shows an interest in not so much the pre-verbal as the pre-metaphorical, where words had meanings that couldn’t be dismissed in analogical excuses, by claiming it wasn’t what was literally meant. When politicians say they will die in a ditch they don’t really mean this; it is just a figure of speech. Herzog is more inclined to give speech a figure, to create out of what others would see as metaphor, an actualisation. 

Werner Herzog eats his shoe.

One sees this especially in the context of hyperbole, “a figure of speech which contains an exaggeration for emphasis”,3 a usage that many deploy but where the emphasis rests on the idea that it remains in the realm of language. Herzog insists on turning the hyperbolic into action, making real what sounds like the mythomaniacal: whether it is going to film an erupting volcano while the locals retreat, as in La Soufrière (1977), or insisting on getting a 340-ton boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. These sounds like stories people tell rather than realities a director films, and the way Herzog describes them asks for the suspension of disbelief that then turns into the belief of the evidential. In Herzog on Herzog, the director talks of speaking to Claudia Cardinale years before the film was made, and talking to her after it was completed. “Werner, when you came to Rome four years ago, you explained your idea to me, and all the difficulties we would have to overcome. Now I see the film and it exactly as you first described.”4 Herzog had lived up to his exaggerated claims. As Hegnsvad says: “The expression ‘I’ll eat my hat’ suggests that linguistic credibility can be re-established only if we use a daft physical act to bind the statement up with the world again. After the ritual speech act we can say: “Well, he’s a man of his word, and let’s say no more about it.” (p. 139)

Hegnsvad inevitably invokes the sublime, the notion that Burke and Kant explore to understand the “human sensation of almost being crushed by something greater. An encounter with a huge mountain, a violent firestorm or some great cruelty [that] overwhelms our perceptual apparatus.” (pp. 93-94) If hyperbole is the speech we often give to events we would shrink away from, Herzog insists on constantly overcoming the sublime fear; proving equal to the magnitude of the terror, and filming the result. Yet Herzog insists “I absolutely loathe adventurers, and I particularly hate this old pseudo-adventure where the mountain climb becomes about confronting the extremes of humanity.”5 So why do it, who so consistently does Herzog put himself into dangerous situations? “I simply do not have goals in life. Rather, I have goals in existence” Hegnsvad quotes Herzog saying, and adds that “for Herzog, people are also oppressed by the fundamentals of the human condition. In all his films, he has shown an interest in the existential individual who lives his life in the shadow of death.” (p. 81) We might see that as the difference between an ego who sets out to accomplish things in their own chosen life, and the spirit that seeks to attain states that cannot be countenanced beforehand. Hyperbole might better be couched as ecstasy, and the film, and the ‘adventure’ involved in making it, the possibility of this ecstatic demand.

People are constantly meeting goals in life but maybe too many of these goals are competitive and calculative, based on comparing oneself to others and attaining times, heights and distances that can be clearly defined. To have goals in existence however is to defy rather than conform to the limits of time and space, as though the journeys Herzog has taken into the Amazonian jungle, the Australian outback, the Skellig Islands, Elmina Castle in Ghana, Saint Vincent and the Chauvet caves, have been to find places and spaces that are worthy of the tall tales he wishes to tell. If he insists that he is a storyteller first of all, then he is the teller of tales who then provides the evidence before your eyes that you might assume will remain behind un-empirical exaggeration. In this sense, Herzog is both pre- and post-scientific, averse to technology, and yet aware of the necessity of it as he determines to narrate the unbelievable with a camera that never lies. If vital to the scientific is the evidential, Herzog is indeed a good scientist as he knows well the difference between someone writing a book about a man who hauls a boat over a mountain, and someone who makes a film about exactly that. Yet at the same time, Herzog wants us to believe that the genius of Fitzcarraldo doesn’t rest on an all but impossible feat achieved, but the will to dream such a burden (to invoke the title of the Les Blank documentary on Fitzcarraldo’s making). If Muybridge’s camera wanted to know empirically if all the legs of a horse were off the ground simultaneously in a moment where cinema met science, Herzog asks can cinema record the most burdensome of dreams; can it give images to our unconscious, and find in the world those images?

Herzog for years has railed against cinéma vérite as the truth of accountants, a point Hegnsvad returns to on several occasions and based of course on Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration from 1999, where Herzog says: “By dint of declaration the so-called cinéma vérité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants”, and later adds “filmmakers of cinéma vérité resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.” (p. 52) Herzog may be positing a very narrow notion of cinéma verité or just taking it literally; saying truth doesn’t rest in the truth of what the camera films but in a truth that it must find. Perhaps cinéma verité was too contemporary; that in searching out the immediate reality of people’s lives in films like Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Le Joli Mai (1963), Salesman (1969) and Love Meetings (1964), and the political and the institutional in Primary (1960) and Welfare (1975), the directors had only attended to the present moment and not enough to the layers of time that make up a civilisation. That such films were made by directors like Jean Rouch, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Chris Marker, who always resisted the term cinéma vérite, insisting, “you will never make me say ‘cinéma verité’”,6 hardly suggests accountancy cinema. However, Herzog’s virulence against a certain type of filmmaking can best be seen not in what he is attacking but what he is defending: his own way of making films. We don’t demand from Herzog a nuanced account of the documentary tradition – we expect him to go out and make films that are products of his dream imagination, meeting physical exertion. “Films require strong thighs” (p. 173) Herzog insists and reckons civilisation never recovered from the rearing of pigs. “Breeding domesticated pigs. This was mankind’s first heart sin. Why? Because in order to breed pigs you have to become sedentary; this begat settlements, which begat towns which begat cities, which begat all the problems that will be mankind’s destruction.” (p. 223) This is dialogue from The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), offered by Brad Doufin. It is okay however to breed dogs since they can go with you on nomadic hunts. Unlike pigs, they have strong thighs.

The Wild Blue Yonder

There is often in Herzog’s films and in his remarks a position that goads us into contradiction, just as his films tempt us with disbelief. Yet one reason why Hegnsvad’s book is so engaging is courtesy of Reaktion books, who have produced a work that hasn’t cut corners on the stills. There are often, in film books, illustrations that add nothing to the text, frequently weakly reproduced black and white images to colour films, images that despondently recall the film under discussion but which have no capacity to bring back the beauty of the film itself. Unless a book manages to invoke or explain, rather than merely to illustrate, perhaps it is best if film books remain without images. Books by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are good examples of the explanatory, linking the screen grabs with very clear reasons why they have chosen the images they have, while books like this one, Dutoit and Bersani’s Forms of Being, Black Dog Publishing’s Forever Godard and Tarkovsky, evoke the films. They are full of images bringing out the beauty of the films under discussion. Who wouldn’t wish that some of the greatest film books of the last fifty years (Cavell’s The World Viewed, Deleuze’s Cinema books, Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost, Manny Farber’s Negative Space etc) would come out in an edition equal to the intelligence of the prose? Here is a tome that shows what film books can look like without reducing itself to a something that can only be placed on a coffee table. We may even see it as consistent with the type of empiricism Herzog seeks: that Hegnsvad is never more respectful to his teacher and mentor than when offering, in brilliant black and white and alluring colour, images that remind us of what Herzog was seeking. If Herzog insisted on creating images that sit deeply inside us, it is great to have access to numerous examples of them in a book about his work.


  1. Pauline Kael, When the Lights Go Down (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980), p. 54.
  2. Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), pp. 281-282.
  3. J. A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (London: Penguin, 1992) p. 435.
  4. Cronin, Herzog on Herzog, p. 176.
  5. Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog, p. 199.
  6. Antoine de Baecque, “Marker Direct: An Interview with Chris Marker”, Film Comment (May-June 2003).

About The Author

Tony McKibbin teaches Short Courses at The University of Edinburgh and writes for various magazine and journals. His website can be found at tonymckibbin.com, and some of the material from the website is in book form: On and About Film and Other Essays; Craig Dunain and Other Stories.

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