18 November 2021


Kristoffer Hegnsvad. Werner Herzog, Ecstatic Truth and Other Useless Conquests. Reaktion Books

Is Werner Herzog crazy or is it a mad world? If the world has now gone too crazy then has it superseded Werner Herzog – no question mark required. For me filmmaker Herzog is wildly and responsibly sane: an uncomfortable provocateur passionately driven to discover what’s possible in order to re-think the world: to achieve this he desires to present the viewer of his films with ‘a new grammar of images.’
Thus according to Kristoffer Hegnsvald author of Werner Herzog, Ecstatic Truth and Other Useless Conquests (so much un-romantic and romantic irony packed into that title) Werner should be regarded not as an auteur (though he is) but a chronicler who doesn’t require a business card to introduce himself: ‘But if he should happen to get some printed, what it would say under Herzog’s name was not director, producer or author. The card would say: ‘Previously unseen images, previously unheard sounds and thoughts.’

Hegnsvad asserts that Werner Herzog is a maverick visionary who for almost sixty years has been challenging our perceptions of reality. Certainly, just look at some of the brilliant shorts, features and documentaries that Herzog has fashioned in his own inimitable style. The critique of civilisation and megalomania in Aguirre, the Wrath of God; the harsh capitalist absurdities abounding in Stroszek: a man succeeds in building an opera house in a jungle, Fitzcarraldo; the savage indifference of the animal world, Grizzly Man; confronting the darkness of lifers on death row in On Death Row parts 1&2; exploring Antarctica in Encounters at the Edge of the World, full of global warming prophecies and disorientated penguins; volcanoes, prehistoric caves, the internet, Japanese family romance and the impact of meteors and comets. The eclectic list of concerns goes on and on throughout the planet. And don’t forget the vampire and rats of Nosferatu.

If you are looking for a close textual reading of all of Herzog’s films than Hegnsvad’s book is not for you. Nor is it a straight biography. However you will find many acute and revealing insights into his films, working methods and what Hegnsvald considers to be Herzog’s philosophy.

The term 'accountants” is used throughout the book. I think Hegnsvad means some bureaucratic mind-set controlling the world as it tries to construct an explicable and exploitable materialist reality. He then stresses the something else (Hegnsvad’s italics) of Herzog’s creativity. This is - ‘the world that is to be found among our linguistic predicates in the tiny invisible and inaudible gaps in the spreadsheet of the truth of accountants...if we are to understand Herzog’s new images, the aim of which is not to suggest any kind of concrete solution that would only develop into another accountant’s truth.’

Basically Herzog never supplies us with answers but leaves us with doubt, mystery and vision which cannot be pinned down by literal minds. 

The strength and also weakness of Hegnsvald’s writing is that he gives us a picture of Herzog as the great adventurer, explorer and recorder of things from an over-philosophical perspective. He almost wants to accord the director a place in a list of critical thinkers like Foucault or Adorno (quoted in the book). It’s not that Herzog’s imagery can’t bear that weight but Hegnsvald tends to stress the personality of Herzog over the personality of the films, making the book a little overlong for me. Yet the very fact that Werner Herzog is treated with such high seriousness is remarkable. He deserves it as Herzog is a considerable filmmaker of ideas who’s empathic, passionate and humane.

I enjoyed this book for all the questions it posed. I also enjoyed it for being handsomely produced: fine matt-finished colour and black and white images are expertly laid out against apt quotations. There are numerous books available on Herzog. This is one of the most erudite and engaging. Not for beginners but essential for well-versed Herzog admirers.
  • Alan Price.

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