Thursday, 9 December 2010

Of Walking in Ice (2007)


First published in 1978, this review is of the 2007 reprint.

Werner Herzog is one of the few directors who has continually emphasised the physicality of filmmaking. For Herzog the filmmaking process is as much an expression of brute strength and physical fitness, as it is mental and intellectual agility. In order to fully explore the musculature inherent in his attitude to the art Herzog has travelled the continents in search of harsh and dangerous terrains. This isn’t because of an irresponsible desire for risk taking in my view, but possibly to assuage the embarrassment Herzog might feel for having fallen into filmmaking as a career. In his manifesto for documentary cinema entitled The Minnesota Declaration Herzog states “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.” One of the key components of his ‘Rogue Film School’ is that “it is for those who travel on foot”, throughout Herzog’s writings and observations he has returned again and again to the idea of travelling on foot as a means to release the poetic qualities within, and to appreciate the landscape as something more than a scenic backdrop. This attitude reached its extreme apotheosis in the winter of 1973/4 when he embarked on a journey from Munich to Paris on foot, in order to visit the ailing German film scholar Lotte Eisner. Herzog believed that undertaking this epic travail in this manner would somehow lead to Eisner clutching to life, and to survive until he finally arrived. In this he was correct and Eisner would go on to live for several years.

Eisner was a figure of some magnitude for the filmmakers of that loose coalition critics termed The New German Cinema. She was around to document German cinema at its time of greatest visibility and prominence; the 1920’s. Her book The Haunted Screen remains a key note text on German expressionism, as does her biographical writings on F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. Importantly she was a strong supporter and advocate of the new breed of politically and socially aware filmmakers emerging in Germany in the late 1960’s; even appearing in Herzog’s weird quasi sci-fi documentary film Fata Morgana (1971) as a narrator. Her importance lies in her relationship to a glorious cinematic past, and her endorsement and acceptance of Herzog and his colleagues was no doubt a seal of approval appreciated by all. Although her ill health is the event that propels Herzog on his way, Of Walking in Ice isn’t really about this at all. In fact for most of the book Eisner isn’t mentioned at all, and neither are there any overt references to Herzog’s films or anybody else’s. This is a pure diary of fevered observation, but it does give us a crucial insight into how Herzog views and then subsequently conceives landscape as a reflection of internal chaos.

Herzog begins his epic quest on the 23rd November 1973 and almost immediately he is beset by difficulties; if it isn’t the personal discomfort of swollen ankles, it is the atrocious Bavarian weather, which ravages the countryside with a constant downpour of rain, sleet and eventually snow. In addition to this Herzog passes through inhospitable villages populated by suspicious locals, and the alienation and isolation of our intrepid adventurer begins to take its toll. Naturally the wild animals, livestock, and domesticated pets Herzog encounters on his journey behave in the curiously eccentric manner we see in his films, and amid the harsh and brutal mercilessness of the elements the surrealism steadily builds. Herzog’s hardest task is bedding down for the night. He regularly finds himself breaking into deserted houses, or if there is no free alternative, staying at the village tavern. Occassionaly Herzog accepts a lift, but generally speaking he treks the empty country lanes, marshy fields, and skeletal woodlands alone and in an increasingly fragile and fragmented state of mind. The writing reflects this fragmentation, with many sentences and passages making little or no sense. This free form attitude can be grating, but it does illustrate effectively the visions of a wandering mind, but beneath Herzog flowing imaginings the constant pressure of the weather, loneliness, and exhaustion are never far from the surface. The problems with syntax and structure might be due to the translation, but oddly this adds to the surrealism, and the overall sense is of a fever dream punctuated by utterly bizarre symbolism.

But there is always a sense in Herzog’s documentaries (of which this is one) that all might not be what it seems. We always feel Herzog’s guiding hand directing us to a certain conception of the truth, and Of Walking in Ice fits Herzog’s mythology so perfectly that there is a definite self-consciousness to it. The myths and legends that circulate this filmmaker are not created by accident. Although much is apocryphal Herzog himself does little to staunch the flow of tales, and this book contributes to that flow. There is a certain nihilistic pointlessness to the whole thing that brings to mind the dragging of the steamship over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo (1982). The sense of an extended metaphor, but a metaphor for what we can only guess at. Perhaps it is metaphor for metaphor’s sake; either way Of Walking in Ice is a fevered and gloomy account, but one which fits seamlessly into Herzog’s ongoing cinematic concerns and the mythology that surrounds him.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Not seen this actually. Loved your write up, very entertaining ;)

  2. Cheers Sarah; yes it's an interesting book, its jumped quite a bit in price recently, last time I looked it was up to £30 on the Amazon Marketplace, but if you find it for a reasonable price, you should add it to your collection.


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