Two of the most admired and beloved figures in cinema are celebrated in this slim volume that collects all the material the late Roger Ebert wrote about his friend, director Werner Herzog. Fans of either or both men will find this essential reading, but as its interviews and reviews follow this professional relationship over the years, repetitions and the inevitable mellowness of age tell a story that winds down from a youthful, fevered excitement. By the end of the book, it’s like having the honor of hanging out with your idols over a span of decades, and at some point realizing that they’re telling the same stories you heard years ago.
Herzog plies his trade in what he calls “ecstatic truth.” The book leads with its most essential material; an interview Ebert conducted with Herzog at Facets Multimedia in 1979 is an exciting read that embodies the director’s heightened sensibilities. After relating stories of cinematic derring-do, Herzog tells the Chicago crowd, “In my own country, people try to label me personally as an eccentric, as some sort of strange freak that does not fit their patterns. And that’s ridiculous. THEY are insane!”
Such boldness seemed to inspire Ebert as a critic. In his 1979 review of Herzog’s vampire movie Nosferatu, the critic sounds likewise inspired: “He enters into a high mountain pass filled with tenuous cloud layers that drift by a little too fast, as if God were sucking in his breath.”
Many of the retold stories are about the making of Fitzcarraldo, for which Herzog was infamously determined to haul an entire steamboat across a mountain. Referring to films that sent Herzog to such precarious locations as the mouth of a volcano and the Amazonian jungle 500 miles from the nearest city, Ebert frequently notes what Herzog calls the “voodoo of location,” his belief that a film cannot help but be profoundly enhanced by such verisimilitude.
Yet Fitzcarraldo may have been the turning point, when even the German director’s signature obsession no longer guaranteed an undeniably singular vision. Similarly, while Ebert’s initial reviews of Herzog’s early films seem inspired, his writing about subsequent films tap phrases and incidents from previous work. Critics who have had the privilege of covering any filmmaker’s work over a stretch of time well know that it’s hard not to refer to one’s own prior writing, and while in the context of a print or online periodical it may not be that noticeable, when gathered in book form, the echoes become obvious.
Still, in a forward to the book, Herzog reveals a mind as contrarian and skeptical as ever. Speaking of a world that Ebert and Herzog both saw coming when Disney wanted to take the TV show “At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper” in “a different direction, Herzog laments “a world without history or compass.” If only such anger were evident in such recent films as the alarmingly wan Queen of the Desert. Some may be further surprised that, in an interview with this reviewer in 2016, Herzog admitted that he regularly watches and appreciates internet cat videos.
Herzog by Ebert closes on a wonderfully iconoclastic note with Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration,” a list of points prepared for a Q&A at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1999. After a series of complaints about cinema vérité, which he derides as “the truth of accountants,” one item neatly sums up the director’s personality and aesthetic: “The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although the glacier eventually farts. And don’t you listen to the Song of Life.” It may not be clear exactly what he means, but that is as good an example of “ecstatic truth” as any.