Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog

In November 1974, film director Werner Herzog learned that a friend of his, Lotte Eisner, was on her deathbed. Eisner, a concentration camp survivor, was a legendary German film critic who had worked with Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinemateque Francaise. Herzog avowed that "This must not be, not at this time; German cinema could not do without her now." He somehow became convinced that if he walked from Munich to Paris—about 500 miles—to visit her, she would be saved.

And so he decided to make the three week trek through Europe on foot, in early winter, armed with a small rucksack, a compass, and a new pair of boots, stating that "I want to be alone with myself." Which just seems so quintessentially Herzog.

He documented his experiences in a diary, published a few years ago as Of Walking in Ice. I love how austere the packaging is—the plain white cover (perhaps emblematic of the snow and ice he traveled through), the matte finish cover, the small understated type.

As one might guess, the journey was extremely physically unpleasant. Herzog endured rain, ice, snow, and wind, suspicious farmers, and of course fatigue: "Hail and storm, almost knocking me off my feet with the first gust...Along with the storm and snow and rain, leaves are falling as well, sticking to me and covering me completely. Away from here, onward."

At one point his thoughts turn to Eisner—"How is she? Is she alive?...If I actually make it, no one will know what this journey means." But mostly they are dark, gloomy, and a little bit existential. "Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void."

With only one side trip, to the birthplace of Joan of Arc, Herzog did make it to Munich to see Eisner. And she went on to live nine more years until her death at the age of 83.

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