Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A Memoir

Image of Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A Memoir
Release Date: 
October 10, 2023
Penguin Press
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“Herzog has a mystical sense of truth as a form of knowing that cannot be put into words. It can only be experienced. Film is the medium that allows him to engage in this search.”

What are we to make of Werner Herzog, the man who has given us Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo; who cooked and ate his own shoe to keep a vow to the filmmaker Errol Morris; who once jumped into a cactus patch to celebrate the successful completion of a film? Is he a madman, a daredevil, a visionary, a desperate attention-seeker, or all of the above?

Herzog is now 81 years old, and the cover photo on his book does not attempt to conceal the toll those years have taken. Over the course of a career that has spanned more than six decades, he has made 70 films and directed 23 operas. He has also performed epic walking treks under difficult winter conditions in order to experience the world on foot with all his senses engaged. He disdains comfort and welcomes risk.

He made his first film as a teenager with a camera he “borrowed” from a Munich film institute that had rejected his application for admission. Since then, his camera and his voice have taken us down raging rivers in the Amazon jungle, into a prehistoric cave whose walls are covered with primitive art, inside the crater of an erupting volcano, and to the Alaska campsite of Timothy Treadwell, a man who wanted to live among grizzly bears and who, along with his girlfriend, was eaten by one.

In the course of his memoir Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Herzog tells us that from an early age he knew he wanted to make films, and through them, “to defend outposts others have abandoned.” This intention explains many of his personal life adventures as well as his choice of subject matter for his films. He makes films on the margins of civilization about the margins of civilization. He seeks extremes in order to reconcile them, to discover through this search the truth of life.

Aguirre is a Spanish conquistador seeking El Dorado, a mythical city of gold, in the jungle. The quest drives him mad as the jungle devours his expedition. Fitzcarraldo, another madman played by Klaus Kinski, Herzog’s alter ego, strives to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle. His ambition brings ruin on himself, as the making of the film nearly does on Herzog.

Herzog is on a quest to find his limits, “his truth.” The protagonists of his films, like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, are objectifications of himself, men pursuing seemingly impossible dreams that just might be “doable” if limits are pushed to the breaking point. No surprise that one of Herzog’s real-life heroes is Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who slung a line between the roofs of the twin towers in Manhattan and performed on it for 45 minutes.

At another point in the memoir, Herzog declares, “The question of truth has preoccupied me in all my films . . . Truth does not necessarily have to do with facts.” He is in pursuit of what he calls “ecstatic truth—truth as an activity, a search.” Herzog has a mystical sense of truth as a form of knowing that cannot be put into words. It can only be experienced. Film is the medium that allows him to engage in this search.

Herzog was born in Bavaria in 1942 into a world convulsed by a war that devastated his homeland. He lived under conditions of extreme deprivation. His parents were both Nazis who left the Party and divorced after the war. His mother struggled to support Werner and his older brother Till while their father served in the army. They lived in squalid conditions in a tiny room in Schrang, a small village. They were always hungry. Herzog used the ordeal to build strength and will.

His mother moved them to Munich after the war, where Herzog attended a quality gymnasium, excelled in his studies, and was admitted to the university. He abandoned formal education to pursue filmmaking. After visiting a German film studio to witness production, he decided he was unsuited for conventional filmmaking and struck out on his own. Stepping off into the abyss, he started his own production company. “I learned the basics about cinema in about a week from reading the thirty or forty pages on radio, film, and TV in an encyclopedia,” he remarks breezily. An autodidact, Herzog finds no subject—not physics, not geology, not linguistics—daunting. His curiosity is fearless, his energy apparently boundless.

Many of Herzog’s films have been documentaries that he narrates himself. He made a study of hypnosis to learn the techniques that would make his voice on the soundtrack as mesmerizing as the images on the screen. He believes his Bavarian accent gives his voice a quality of enchantment. It’s true that watching his films viewers feel cast under a spell by what they see and hear.

The documentary impulse lies behind Herzog’s fictional films as well. He deliberately makes conditions for filming difficult, to test everyone’s limits, in the belief that the stress will bring out the best in them. Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo are notable examples. 20th Century Fox had planned to finance and distribute Fitzcarraldo, with Jack Nicholson in the lead. The studio bailed out when Herzog rejected their plan to film at a botanic garden in San Diego, and Nicholson refused to leave the Los Angeles area during the Lakers basketball season.

Herzog’s memoir is really an autobiography, since it covers his entire life and delves into his family history. It comes as a surprise that, after recounting a life full of astonishing adventures and unique achievements, he closes on a pessimistic note. Mournfully, he declares, “The end is coming. I picture a radical turning away from thought, argument, and image, not just an approaching darkness in which certain objects can still be felt, but a condition where they no longer exist at all, a darkness filled with fear, with imaginary monsters.”

Sounds a lot like Germany in 1942.