‘Nomad’ and a Wondering, Wandering Herzog

‘In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin’ is one of the director’s most personal films

7 mins read

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin
(UK, 86 min.)
Dir. Werner Herzog

“The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot,” says Werner Herzog in Nomad. The indefatigably prophetic director quotes himself while relating his book Of Walking in Ice to his latest film. The book recounts Herzog’s trek on foot from Munich to Paris to visit a dying mentor.

Herzog’s new film evokes a journey both different and similar. He embarks on a nomadic quest to honour the life of his late friend, Bruce Chatwin, thirty years after the journeyman’s death. The film might be Herzog’s most personal film to date. It’s a film that could only be made by someone like Herzog who has travelled the world and pondered deeply about life and its complexities.

Herzog travels the globe and retraces footsteps that he and Chatwin took during their journeys both separate and shared. The first chapter whisks audiences to Chilean Patagonia where Chatwin enjoyed an odyssey at the age of 37 and found the inspiration for his breakthrough book In Patagonia. Colourful characters and enigmatic archival footage situate Chatwin’s journey within a larger legacy of nomads as Herzog reflects on a culture and a way of life that has long gone by. Visits to sites in Argentina and Chile observe artifacts in museums and markers of human activity, such as hand paintings in a cave and the earliest evidence of man’s use of fire. Various interviewees—a mix of the usual talking heads academics and eccentrics—illuminate aspects of the journey that piqued Chatwin’s curiosity then and fuel Herzog’s curiosity today.

There is also a decidedly Herzoggian moment to make readers and viewers smile. In the La Plata Natural History Museum of Buenos Aires, the director presents some relics from the “cabinet of curiosities” that bewildered a young Chatwin that inspired his quests. Among them is the well-preserved skin of an animal, dubbed the hide of a brontosaurus by Chatwin’s grandmother, but actually the remains of a giant pre-historic sloth known as a mylodon, which died some 10,000 years ago. The skin is nevertheless intriguing, as are the well-preserved bowling ball sized mylodon turds that Herzog admires with awe and wonder. The 10,000 year-old animal poop illustrates how thoughtful wanderers/wonderers like Chatwin and Herzog see the limitless potential to consider the world in its most mundane excretions.

Equally infused with wonder are the scenes that reflect on Chatwin’s work and travels in Australia. The film notes how the director and his friend first met Down Under as Chatwin was furiously writing his book Songlines. Herzog eventually reveals that his friend was already terminally ill during the course of writing this book that looked at the landscape and the evolution of human endeavour that defined it. Despite the obvious outcome for the story, Herzog’s vulnerability and genuine emotion make the inevitably journey surprisingly moving.

As Herzog retraces Chatwin’s steps, he considers how he and the journeyman often visited similar locales but at different times. Their stories gradually converge as Herzog recalls their paths crossing and eventually leading to both a working relationship and a deep friendship that lasted until the end of Chatwin’s life. Among the stories of their travels is the tumultuous production of Herzog’s dramatic feature Cobra Verde, which was adapted from Chatwin’s book The Viceroy of Ouidah. The director fondly recalls getting to know Chatwin during the nutty shoot in Ghana. The adventure, as Herzog wistfully remembers, brought together two kindred souls eager to roam wherever their legs and minds would allow.

At first glance, Nomad might seem like minor Herzog. It is, admittedly, his most lo-fi and modest production to date. There are scenes in which Herzog and company pore over Chatwin’s notebooks and scribblings. Sometimes the director holds up a page for the camera to see. The handwritten notes are barely legible for a viewer. His fascination with his friend’s work is much easier to see. What the film loses in aesthetics it gains in meaning as two lives intertwine in a personal examination of restlessness and contentment.

Herzog remains an avid traveller, as evidenced by this film and countless others. He brings Chatwin’s own rucksack on his journeys, a personal item gifted to him from his late friend decades ago. This memento fuels Herzog’s quixotic odyssey through the world and through the self. So long as this director’s legs shall move, he will roam the Earth and enjoy new horizons. In examining Chatwin’s story, Herzog ultimately turns the camera upon himself more overtly than he does in the peculiarly philosophical quagmires into which he often treads. Despite walking many steps around the word and delivering many great films in the process, he’s never quite made a self-portrait like this one. Werner’s latest might be his most Herzoggian film yet.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on December 20.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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