Exciting evening on Thursday at the Filmoteca de Catalunya with Werner Herzog evoking his friend Bruce Chatwin (who died of AIDS in January 1989) on the occasion of the screening of the great filmmaker’s documentary about the no less great traveling writer. Exciting and moving: a spectator confessed in the subsequent intense conversation with the director that he had spent the entire film crying. “It’s a movie very close to my heart,” Herzog said.
Really, Nomad: in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (2019), screened as the start of the current German Film Series, is a work of great emotion, with an almost unbearable moment when the protagonist with a cadaverous face appears on the screen in the last bars of his illness. Far from a typical film biography, Herzog focuses on seeking the essence of Chatwin, his life and his thought. The filmmaker himself appears in the film as a conductor, psychopomp and midwife in the Socratic sense of the term: in the sense of accompanying the audience towards the sometimes inexplicable radiance that springs from the beautiful and ill-fated author of In patagonia (died at 48, “we only attended his first act,” said another great friend of his, Salman Rushdie).
Herzog, who was finishing a very active stay in Barcelona to go to a film workshop in Lanzarote, near another incandescence that attracts him, that of the La Palma volcano, explained that when the BBC decided to produce a documentary about Chatwin in the 30th anniversary of his death, “I told them, ‘don’t ask anyone, I’m the competent person to do it!”
He was such a friend of Chatwin (“in a certain way a brother”) that at the end of his life he gave him his precious backpack, that iconic backpack (like his moleskines) with which Lord Snowdon portrayed him in 1982 in his most famous photograph and that, as he himself explained in a letter (to his wife Elizabeth Chatwin in 1975, from Punta Arenas), he was acquiring the patina of his travels. The backpack, a copy of that of the actor Jean Louis Barrault with whom Chatwin, fetishist of volume and spine and suckled esthetician at Sotheby’s, had met on a plane, had been commissioned by a saddler and was a frameless leather backpack dark brown and with pockets.
The writer gave it to Herzog a few days before he died. His biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare claims that he called the filmmaker to his side because he believed he had healing powers. Herzog was impressed by her condition. It was a pure skeleton. The filmmaker had brought him Sun shepherds, his documentary on the Wodaabe nomads of Niger, and played it to him in ten-minute chunks, after which Chatwin either fainted or raved. “I have to get back on the road!” He yelled. He asked Herzog to accompany him and bring him the backpack. And then, aware that he was dying, he gave it to her.
The scene of Nomadic in which Herzog tells that is tremendous. The filmmaker affirms that if his house were to catch fire, the backpack would be all his belongings that he would save. “It is one of my most beloved possessions.”
In the discussion, apart from saying that it is “very painful and violent to see someone dying,” he refused to comment on his moments with the dying traveler, referring to the film. He revealed that he had come to Barcelona without the backpack, “with a normal suitcase, so that everything would fit me.”
Of another of his important relationships, the troubled Klaus Kinski, he said that he was very different from Chatwin but that possibly had he aged, the writer would have physically resembled the actor.
Interestingly, given the friendship with Chatwin, Herzog did not personally meet another great friend of this, Patrick Leigh Fermor. When I asked him about it during the visit, he told me that he greatly admired the author of The time of gifts, another great walk, he recalled, and his favorite book from the writer. Leigh Fermor also owned a famous backpack, that of the writer and traveler Robert Byron, precisely the idol of Chatwin.
The documentary, full of moments that give you goosebumps, although necessarily reductionist of Chatwin’s multifaceted personality, capable of looking like an angel and a zipper, a genius and a dilettante, a backpacker and a dandy, a tender husband of Elizabeth and a gay man who especially liked rather dirty men (“he was alarmingly handsome for both sexes”), starts with the famous remains of the skin of the extinct giant lazy milodon that drove, like the fleece to the Argonauts, the traveling passion of the writer taking you to Patagonia; and with Chatwin himself reading the first page of that book that made him a cult figure.
The film, which defends the writer from accusations of inventing episodes of his travels (“he modified the facts to show more than half the truth, the truth and the half”) emphasizes the connection between Herzog and Chatwin, expressed in the filmmaker’s continuous appearances in conversation with witnesses to the existence of the writer as his widow Elizabeth and visiting emblematic places (“landscapes of the soul”) of his life: Punta Arenas, Silbury Hill, the Australian deserts … Chatwin and Herzog (Mr H as he calls it in his letters) they met in 1983 Melbourne, where both were interested in the myths of the aborigines, and they tuned in on the spot. They began by talking about the saving powers of walking (Chatwin always carried Herzog’s book on his journey on foot from Paris to Munich, From walking on ice), both agree that traveling on foot is a virtue and tourism a mortal sin. They talked for 48 hours non-stop, Herzog recalled, “a delusion, a torrent of stories.”
The documentary recalls the visit of Chatwin, already ill, to the filming in Ghana of green snake, Herzog’s adaptation of the writer’s novel The viceroy of Ouidah, where he could see how the filmmaker, Klaus Kinski and 800 half-naked women recreated the attack of the slave owner Souza and his Amazons from his book, whose rights David Bowie had claimed.
The session had a curious emotional moment foreign to Chatwin when Herzog greeted the presence in the room of an old collaborator of his, Paco Joan, a cameraman in several of his films and who narrowly escaped the filmmaker when he lost a plane that crashed in the jungle in 1971 during the filming of Aguirre, the wrath of God (Herzog recalled that they later made a documentary, Wings of hope about the sole survivor of the accident).
Leaving the Filmoteca it was impossible to stop seeing the world through Herzog’s prism, his powerful symbolic images. His vision was joined with the memory of Chatwin in the same streets of Barcelona, where in July 1978 he could be seen (Nicholas Shakespere tells it) “in a dangerous area near the port”, alone and disheveled, all in white except for a trail of blood on the unbuttoned shirt. Beautiful and cursed, walking.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.