Werner Herzog's long walk

Brice Marden, Cold Mountain Series, Zen Study 4, 1991


Commentary on the book "Walking on Ice”, by Werner Herzog


If I were to talk about the filmography of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, I believe I would need to write a lot about his production, explore part of the enormous critical fortune regarding him, in addition to seeking to establish a series of other relationships with the international cinematographic field. He directed more than sixty films, acted in around two dozen series and films, wrote screenplays and at least one novel.

He was already a well-known filmmaker when, at the end of November 1974, in Munich, he received a call from a friend in Paris saying that Lotte Eisner “was very ill, on the verge of death.” Werner Herzog’s reaction was passionate: “It can’t be (…) Not now. German cinema cannot be without it, we must not let it die. I grabbed a coat, a compass and a bag with the essentials. My boots were so solid and new that they inspired me with confidence; I set off on the shortest route to Paris, certain that she would live if I went to find her on foot. Furthermore, I wanted to be alone” (p. 7).

And so it was done: the thousand kilometers that separate Munich from Paris were covered between November 23 and December 14, 1974. Werner Herzog wrote along the way what crossed his mind in a notebook that, in principle, he shouldn't have done. be published. Almost four years later, upon rereading his records, he confessed: “I was overcome with a strange emotion, and the desire to show it overcame my shyness of baring myself in this way before the eyes of others” (p. 7 – transcription of the “Previous Note ” of May 24, 1978).


But before continuing, I think a few words should be said, albeit briefly, about Lotte H. Eisner (1896-1983). She was a French-German writer, theater and film critic, archivist and curator, having initially worked as a critic in Berlin and then in Paris. There, in 1936, she met Henri Langlois (1914-1977), helping him to create, that same year, the French Cinémathèque. With the rise of Nazism, she ended up arrested and sent to a Jewish prison camp in the Pyrenees, run by French collaborationists. She managed to escape and maintained contact with Henri Langlois who, during the war, hid film cans throughout much of France in order to hide them from the Nazis.

After the liberation of Paris, Eisner returned to work with Langlois, becoming chief curator of the French Cinémathèque and, over four decades, collected and preserved, in addition to cataloging and organizing, films, costumes, scenography, works of art, scripts and equipment for the institution.

Published, in 1952, The demonic screen: the influences of Max Reinhardt and Expressionism, as well as books about filmmakers FW Murnau (1888-1931), in 1964, and Fritz Lang (1990-1976), in 1976. In the 1950s, Eisner became a friend and mentor to Herzog and other young German filmmakers – Wim Wenders (1945), Volker Schlöndorff (1939) and Herbert Achternbusch (1938-2022). Quite shrewd and sensitive, as Lúcia Nagib, the book's translator, informs, Eisner detected Werner Herzog's talent in Signs of life (1967), his first feature film. “At the time he wrote a letter to Fritz Lang, saying that German cinema was finally reborn.” Later, when carrying out Fata Morgana (1968-1970), Werner Herzog invited her to narrate the film. “From there, a deep friendship and mutual admiration began.”

In any case, Eisnering – which was what Lotte's friends called her – survived for almost ten years after the walk on the ice, a true act of sacrifice, undertaken by Herzog. The cover photo, taken by Lúcia Nagib in the middle of winter, with the street covered in snow, suggests what the filmmaker faced on his long journey.

Rereading his notes and deleting “only a few very intimate passages,” the filmmaker wrote in 1978, when he published them: “I like this book more than all my films.”


Werner Herzog began his wanderings on Saturday, November 23.11.74, XNUMX, leaving Berlin with new, sturdy boots. Well, a few kilometers into the road and the tramplers started to give him problems. “I put a piece of sponge in them and, as I walk, I'm cautious like an animal, I think I'm even thinking like an animal.”

Animal or not, there is no shortage of animals in his story. There are numerous mentions of Bernard dogs, greyhounds, sheepdogs, sheep, Maltese goats, cows, sheep, deer and roe deer, calves, foxes, pigs, chickens, herons, swans, ducks, geese, mice, sparrows, partridges, woodpeckers, birds, turkeys, pheasants, crows, blackbirds, crows, goldfinches, buzzards, chucas (small European crow), white hares, white doves, goldfish… It talks about trees and plants, the landscape in general and the men and women with who interacts or simply observes.

He walks and blisters form on his feet, on his heels, on his bunions, making him dream of tape. “I drag more than I walk. My legs hurt so much that I can barely put one in front of the other. How much does a million steps yield?” (25.11.74/27.11.74/28.11.74). His left thigh hurts, from the groin, with every step, leading him to buy camphorated alcohol to minimize the situation (XNUMX/XNUMX/XNUMX). Furthermore, his right ankle is going from bad to worse, his knee hurts and his Achilles tendon swells (XNUMX).

Herzog gets lost, but manages to buy the Shell map in Kirchheim, which makes things easier. “I feel very exhausted. An empty head” (26.11.74). “The mouth (…) is already mealy again. All around, the solitude of the forest in deep black, deathly silence, only the wind stirs” (2.12.74).

Still in Germany, his observations are cutting: “in these unkempt villages, there are only tired people, who no longer expect anything from life” (28.11.74). He thinks about his little son, who at the beginning of the night “should already be in bed, holding the edge of the blanket” (29.11.74). He gets a few short rides when the cold and rain become overwhelming and is happy to be able to buy another compass, as the one he was carrying was lost (3.12.74). On that same date, he realized a basic need: I need to wash my shirt and t-shirt today: they have such a strong body odor that they force me to zip up my coat when I meet people.”

In France, in Fouday, in a roadside restaurant, he feels like the loneliest person in the world and, having spent several days without speaking to anyone, his voice “didn't want to come out right, I couldn't find the right tone and I just I could chirp, I died of shame” (4.12.74).

Rural France appears at the door of a café in Senones, where “there is a brand new Citröen, with a large load of hay tied to the hood” (5.12.74). Soon after, he gets excited and hopes, if the rain doesn't come, to walk 60 kilometers the next day. But on December 6th he was unable to walk that far: “Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, I can barely remember anything other than the rain (…) There is no one in the fields and the path continues endlessly through the woods.” His fingers are so frozen that I can only write with great effort” (11.12.74) and “My hands, from being so cold, are as red as a crab. Walking still and always” (12.12.74).


It should be noted that Herzog, on this long journey, always asked a basic question: where to sleep? Most of the time, his overnight stays took place in deserted summer houses, which he would discreetly break into at the end of the afternoon and, in the early hours of the morning, continue his journey. In the afternoon of the first day he revealed his way of proceeding: he found a house with an enclosed garden and a small lake with a small bridge – “The house is locked. I do everything the simple way Joschi taught me. One, break down the window door; two, shatter the window; three, enter” (23.11.74).

However, on 28.11.74/25.11/XNUMX, he slept in a haystack. “The rain and snow splashed over the top of the roof, and I buried myself in the straw.” But three days earlier (XNUMX) she broke into another house, this time without breaking anything – “Outside, the storm; here, the rats. How cold it is!”

He laments that “the villages pretend to be dead when I approach” (25.11.74), and “if you walk, you pass a lot of thrown things”; “I would only believe all this if it were a movie” (23.11.74). On the 27th he bought a newspaper at the station bar in Laupheim: “I have no idea what’s going on in the world.” In Vöhringen, Tailfingen, Schramberg, Volkersheim and Münchweier, he slept in inns, shelters, hostels, haystacks, stables, while in Bösingen he was welcomed in a private house and, in Andlau, France, he rested in a stone well.

As he advances into French territory, Herzog finds honey and beehives everywhere, as well as “solitary closed summer houses” (4.12.74). But, in Fouday he narrates something unusual, after dinner on the side of the road and when leaving the city: “I broke into an empty house, more with muque than with marrow, despite there being an inhabited house nearby (…) I left from early morning. The alarm clock that I had found in the house I was leaving made such a loud and treacherous ticking that I went back to get it and, once outside, I threw it into a bush a little further away” (4 and 5.12.74).

Afterwards, in Raon-l'Étape, he went to a small hotel, where he rested and took a shower, while in Charmes, he broke in and slept in a trailer of an exhibition of caravans e camping-trailers (6.12.74). He managed to get a ride in a bumpy pickup truck, “in whose body there were loose gas cylinders”, as well as another, from Mirecourt to Neufchâteau, “which in Charlemagne's time was the center of the entire region” (7.12.74). He visited the house where Joan of Arc was born, in Domrémy and, in Troyes, after drinking a carton of milk, he threw it into the Seine, adding that “the carton I threw into the water will arrive in Paris before me” (10.12.74. XNUMX).

On December 13th he managed to reach his destination completely exhausted, “on feet that were already so exhausted that they robbed me of my senses.” On 14.12.74/XNUMX/XNUMX he ended his tour, finding Eisnerin “still tired and marked by illness.” She knew that he had come walking and, in front of her, he stretched his legs on a chair that she pushed towards him.

In 1978, when Herzog published his diary, political correctness did not set the tone. Today, how would readers receive such a narrative, in which the wanderer breaks into houses, appropriates and throws away an alarm clock that does not belong to him, as well as throwing product packaging into the river that takes years to biodegrade and that could be recycled? Lotte Eisner didn't know any of this when they met in Paris, but if she had known, she who faced so many hardships, often being between life and death in the 1930s and 1940s, I don't think she would have given a damn.

Herzog, in Paris, suggested to her that together “let us cook a fire and stop the fish.” She gives him an understanding smile. “For a thin, brief instant, something soft passed through my exhausted body. I said: open the window, a few days ago I learned to fly.”

*Afranio Catani is a retired senior professor at the Faculty of Education at USP. He is currently a visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus..


Werner Herzog. Walking on ice. Translation: Lúcia Nagib. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1982, 78 pages. [https://amzn.to/3Q41c5v]

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