A rambunctious radical with no real battles left to fight, Werner Herzog enters the sixth decade of his career as a shadow of his former self. Still ostensibly carrying the banner for the mad, macho strain of the German new wave he helped establish, he’s also allowed himself to be whittled down into a cultural curio, a gnomic, dyspeptic mystic who’ll nonetheless do a few key scenes in a Star Wars TV series, all the while asserting to have never seen the movies himself. This sustained performance isn’t quite a betrayal of anything that came before; if anything, it’s a further signal of commitment to the single-minded compulsion to keep making movies under any circumstances, with the meme status and big corporate paychecks serving to achieve that end.

This continued urgency might feel more vital were it accompanied by an equivalent desire to explore new avenues of expression. Instead, the opposite is true. Always a scattershot filmmaker, Herzog’s recent work is increasingly tepid, circulating around the same themes and techniques that have demanded his attention since at least the turn of the 21st century.

Case in point is his latest – one of his two movies released in 2020 – a documentary tribute to a long-departed brother in arms. Nomad surveys the legacy of Bruce Chatwin, a tireless globetrotter, writer and bon vivant whose life was tragically claimed by AIDS in the early years of the epidemic. Herzog’s film wants to be a eulogy for an iconoclast, but remains so immured within familiar styles, his own usual approach to solemn reverence overlapping with the standard bio-doc format, that it does just the opposite. Plodding along in a by-the-numbers rehash of similar laudatory pieces, it provides little actual sense of what made its subject notable.

This is a shame since, like Herzog, Chatwin was a thorny, difficult figure, whose story demands active grappling with, rather than a series of platitudes. A fellow chronic fabulist and skilled self-mythologizer, adept at forcing himself into the center of the narrative, he seems ripe for a keen-eyed consideration of his larger-than-life persona. The limp veneration he instead receives therefore feels pallid, a far cry from the fitting appreciation granted to Herzog’s monstrous crony Klaus Kinski, which the director dramatized twenty years ago in My Best Fiend.

Instead, the self-satisfied tone that Nomad embodies feels all too typical of Herzog’s late period, in which the fascination with outsiders has shifted from a genuinely batty, often dangerous fascination to a comfortable avocation that also serves to pad the director’s own legacy. In watching him laud the singular accomplishments of this ever-restless wanderer, who flouted society’s expectations of normalcy, it’s hard not to get the impression that he’s also talking about his own career, making for another encomium to dreamers and madmen that’s ultimately a tribute to himself.

Demarcated by interviews and Herzog’s usual stream of visits to noteworthy sites, Nomad stands as a thin remembrance held together by ambient drone shots, an effect that at this point is just as overused. To give credit where it’s due, it’s also one built on techniques pioneered by the director himself in films like Lessons of Darkness, where the unsettling potential of an aerial POV was developed like never before. Yet like so many other once-outre methods he had a hand in bringing to the fore, it’s just another feature of the modern documentary toolkit, a quality that contributes to the overall sense of a one-time visionary who the mainstream has long since caught up with.

It’s hard not to get the impression that Herzog’s made another encomium to dreamers and madmen that’s ultimately a tribute to himself.
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