Sometimes There's a Man. I Won't Say a Hero, Because What's a Hero? Composing, 14/07/2013

One unfortunate side-effect of having a mind that’s constantly buzzing with crazy ideas is that a fair number of them don’t really pan out. My Werner Herzog project was one of those. I was put in mind of this because earlier this week, my copy of My Son My Son What Have Ye Done arrived in the mail. I was ecstatic, as I am whenever I decide to buy a new Herzog, see a Herzog in the cinema, Netflix, or the lawless high seas of the internet. I have seen 27 Herzog films, and legally own 20. Beyond being a favourite film director of mine, he’s a favourite artist, a favourite personality. I am in awe of his talent, drive, and casual courage. There are few people I admire more simply as a person. He’s the closest thing to a hero I have among non-fictional people.

After all that praise, you might ask why I abandoned my philosophical project about him. See, the original conception of the Herzog project wasn’t an analysis of his films according to their technical construction or a theoretical exploration. It was an ethic, a philosophical account of how best to live as a person in the twenty-first century. It was a project of how to stare down the likely decline of humanity and the slow wheezing death of our civilization as we drown in a sea of our own shit and choke on a stream of our own bullets. How to stare down our end with dignity and a mischievous smile. I called it a happy existentialism.

If you’ve ever seen Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn, Into the Abyss, the Kinski films, especially Fitzcarraldo, or even Bad Lieutenant: POCNO, you understand how his films can fit into such a project. His Holocaust film, Invincible, is beautifully fitting to such a project in this regard, and even includes a critique of more mainstream traditions of understanding fate, death, and life. Humanity is of a wholly different nature than our ecosystems, but he films jungles and animals as if they were characters, and captures the nature of the creatures and ecosystems he films. In this sense, he offers an existentialism that goes beyond humanism. Existentialism in Sartre’s tradition never got beyond the human world, but Herzog’s films offered a conceptual groundwork to build a philosophy that makes existentialism ecophilosophical. I saw it as the natural next step of my ecophilosophy project: now that we had an ecological ontology, we next build a complete account of the ecologically virtuous person that combines respect for all the creatures and environments of Earth, but combines them with the highest virtues of creativity and nobility in humanity. 

Even beyond this was Herzog’s profound courage as a person, his impeccable integrity in his devotion to art and creativity, humanity’s noblest justification for its existence. He’s the only director to have made a film on all seven continents. He has risked his life, had his life threatened, threatened his own life, suffered through horrendously painful injury (like his snowmobile crash that cracked half his ribs while filming Encounters at the End of the World; he got himself bandaged and was filming again within two days; he was 64 years old at the time) for the sake of his art and the safety of his casts and crews. 

His morality is of creativity, practicality, and respect. His film school was all about instructing young filmmakers in the mercenary lawbreaking required to make art. Herzog Film School 1000: How to Forge a Shooting Permit. He still owns his very first camera, which he stole from a warehouse on the grounds that he was going to make films with it, and it would otherwise have just sat on the shelf. He considers this act entirely justified for that reason. Look up the story of how he dragged Joaquin Phoenix out of a wrecked car. To me, there is no man more ethically admirable than Werner Herzog.

If, in the course of this long, meandering, hopefully entertaining post, I have encouraged at least one of my readers to seek out some Werner Herzog films they hadn’t thought to watch before, I will have made the world a better place.

After all that Herzog love, you might ask why I abandoned the project. It’s because of his women. I had my idea for the Herzogian existentialism project in late 2009, and in early 2012, as I watched Invincible for the second or third time, I had a terrible realization. Every woman who was a major character in a Herzog film was either a riff on the Virgin archetype, or a riff on the Whore archetype. The male protagonists were drawn with all the singularity and petty uniqueness of real human life. But the women were archetypes. And in the plots, the only real importance the female characters served for the narratives were how they affected the men.

Virgins: Helena Rojo and Cecilia Rivera in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Sonja Skiba in Heart of Glass, Isabella Adjani in Nosferatu 1978, Marta in Invincible (a Virgin who Tim Roth treats as a whore), Frankie at the end of Bad Lieutenant.

Whores: Eva Mattes in Woyzeck and Stroszek (especially weird, given their long-term romance in the 1970s to 80s, and his being the father of her daughter), the daughters of the plantation owner and the dungeon full of sex slaves in Cobra Verde, Frankie throughout most of Bad Lieutenant.

There are more complex cases, of course. Mattes’ character in Woyzeck may have been raped; her scene with the drum major in her bedroom makes consent ambiguous at best. And her character in Stroszek tries to give up her life of prostitution, but her arc in Wisconsin is clearly one of increasing desperation and hopelessness. Kinski’s character in Cobra Verde who rapes the plantation owner’s daughters and runs the Ghanaian sex dungeon acknowledges that he is an objectively reprehensible and incurably evil man. Claudia Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo is faithfully devoted to Kinski’s character, but also runs the best little whorehouse in 1890s Peru. And his own relationships and ethics regarding the women in his own life show an immense respect for women, and his knowledge that gender doesn’t matter when it comes to being true Übermenschen.

But compared to the complex paradoxes of ambition, strength, frailty, terror, and joy that are Hombré, Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser, Hias, Bruno, Fitz, Zische Breitbart, Dieter Dengler (the real guy in the documentary and Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn), Tim Treadwell, Terence McDonagh, and I am leaving people out because this list is already too long? The women are almost all cookie cutters or else utterly absent from his films. And I am too devoted to the importance, beauty, joyfulness, and strength that a similarly complex female character can be to paper over this problem with Herzog’s body of work. No matter how much I admire him, this is a dealbreaker when it comes to the new existentialism.

So that project is getting an overhaul at some point. I don’t yet know what to turn it into or how to structure the project. I still love Herzog, and I admire him as one of the great artists and most dignified men of the human race. But this perennial flaw in his work keeps me from engaging with his films for the happy existentialism project. And without that centre, the project has nothing really holding it together in its writing.

Despite it all, nonetheless, I believe in Werner Herzog.
Now, if so much of this post is about old ideas and the past, you might ask why I labelled it Composing instead of A History Boy. It’s a fair question. Because the History Boy posts are matters of influence, stories of how I got to where I am today. The Herzog project is more than just an idea that never really developed into something I could work with. Because that would imply that I’ve left it behind. But Herzog’s art and life is still vitally important to me. 

More than that, the happy existentialism project that Herzog’s work originally inspired is still an ongoing concern. It’s fundamental to the ethical elements of my entire philosophical perspective. Whether or not there will ever be a work in my bibliography specifically devoted to it doesn’t really matter. These ideas inform my life. They’re what I aspire to as a person. Even a man as great as Herzog himself can’t live up to the ideals his work has inspired in me. To hold those ideals in the face of all the madness and terror the world can throw at you, and in the face of the weaknesses that lurk in your own heart on your darkest, most hopeless days, is an expression of the noblest strength of which humanity is capable.


  1. The polio guy at the end of Cobra Verde has always triggered in me the sort of reaction that you're describing. I make peace with it by thinking of his art as classic Romanticism. I think that for him it's all about European bourgeois society -- that's the audience, the real world that he's always prodding -- with the fear and temptation of ethnographic symbols, with the coarseness of Hollywood genre and tropes, with Europe's own grotesque outsiders (eg Kinski, Bruno). As a Romantic, the problem is bourgeois complacency, but I think the inspiring thing about his cinema is that he really does look for answers -- different ways of life, different encounters with the sublime. Hadn't thought about the place of women in this but I also have been trying without success to think of a counter-example. Maybe Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo who does have the two sides but I think is given a fairly rich rendering -- but really that movie is so outside his normal vision of life that I'm more in your camp than not.

  2. That openness to the non-bourgeois is the key to how he just blows all humanism to pieces and leaves it all behind. It's not just the guy with the polio: it's the girl's choir at the end. Those bourgeois morals, that ultra-humanist view of the world that invented traditional Romanticism in the first place, was what Herzog blew apart by mocking them. Aguirre was the moment in his own art when he captured the hypocrisy and stupidity of the "bourgeois:" they were just one animal among many. And even though they had a peculiar nature, each kind of animal has its own nature anyway. Contrast the bears of Grizzly Man with the seals of Encounters at the End of the World.

    That's why he's an ecological Romantic: humans as a species and as individuals are profoundly unique (Romantic) just like all types of creature (ecological).

    But while that was a deep, profound idea, it was like he still only had this very Romantic-inflected language to express it. The animating idea that makes Herzog a kind of prophet of the ecological period of humanity's history. Yet he was still an old-fashioned creature, a child born in WWII Germany, the culmination of humanist Romanticism.

    Imagine a man walking out of an ordinary Elizabethan theatre, only able to speak out loud the language of 1590, but was thinking in the exact English dialect of an London child born in the blitz? What kind of new concepts would he foresee through his art just trying to match this weird dialect in his head with the ordinary language around him? Like echoes of the future.

  3. I'm slowly starting to see how your philosophical commitment to the non-human, your creative interests and your epistemology and your critical perspective are linked up.

    I think with Herzog, man out of time that he is, there is a great deal of truth in transcending one's anticipated limits. Just doing something that you are not (in an Aristotelian sense) destined to do: walk across the Alps, haul a boat up a mountain, live with some bears, spend a summer doing research in Antarctica... all things that are so distinctly human (rather than animal) in their surprise and improvisational purposefulness. This is what I get from his stories (I mean his narrative plotting, rather than his imagery, symbols etc): the person to focus on is the guy doing something that is not animal-like, the person who is not inhabiting his nature, not living out his biological impulse. That's why his lead characters don't descend into primitive or animalistic creatures, but always remain resolutely individual and unique, utterly bizarre configurations of the human-- like Aguirre blathering about a mad empire of his own creation or Fitzcarraldo bursting out in laughter at his own improvidence, the point of transcendence is very much a fully human moment, if you see what I mean. That's why to my mind he's both great at evoking nature and the foreign universe as something meaning-laden and exhilarating but why I think his focus is still rooted in the potential of the bourgeois man.

    I guess the point I'm pushing you on here is whether there's a positive dimension to his treatment of the ecology (rather than just a rhetorical contrast, i.e. look at nature and see you're insignificance), and whether there isn't instead a clear distinction between the non-human world and the special existence of humans, which we often diminish to an animal-like subservience but which can contain a special, unique sort of value and significance if we push ourselves to battiness (no pun intended, of course).

    I don't mean to hector you on this point but am just so distant from ecological/ non-human concerns that it takes me a lot of effort to see things from that perspective -- which is why I enjoy this blog.

    Oh, and I think you should still write that Herzog piece -- just fold in the critical dimension!