Lucy Vickery

On the trail of Herzog

On the trail of Herzog

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At 8.30 a.m. on a crisp autumn Sunday a group of 20 huddled on King’s Cross station’s platform nine and three-quarters — empty but for a smattering of camera-toting Japanese Harry Potter enthusiasts — ready to embark on a journey inspired by the iconoclastic German film-maker Werner Herzog.

In the harsh midwinter of 1974, Herzog made a gruelling pilgrimage, walking 500 miles from Munich to Paris in a bid to fend off the death of the distinguished film critic and historian Lotte Eisner, who had suffered a stroke. Herzog felt that he and his fellow German film-makers owed an immeasurable debt to Eisner who, by giving her blessing to their work, restored to it a legitimacy that had been stripped away by the barbarism of Nazism. ‘I walked against her death,’ he said, ‘knowing that if I walked on foot she would be alive when I got there.’

Our journey, organised by the theatre company 1st Framework in association with the Goethe-Institut London, comprised a train ride to Welwyn Garden City, a seven-mile walk to a village hall in Kimpton, where we had lunch, and then a screening of Herzog’s 1974 documentary The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, followed by a 45-minute dramatised performance by 1st Framework of extracts from Of Walking in Ice, the diary he wrote during his long walk. This book, Herzog has said, is closer to his heart than all his films put together.

We emerged from Welwyn Garden City station to the improbable and unattractive sight of a fountain spouting pink water before following our guide John in an obedient snake through the town’s socially engineered streets, across the A1(M), and out into the fields beyond. Herzog has said that he does all the essential things in life on foot — he walked 1,000 kilometres across the Alps to propose to his wife — and our walk, though of rather less epic proportions, was designed to mirror his three-week marathon.

After a lunch of thick, warming soup and wedges of crusty bread we settled down to watch The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, which documents the Swiss woodcarver and ski-jumper Walter Steiner’s record-breaking flights at Planica, Yugoslavia, in 1974. Steiner is a quintessential Herzog protagonist: obsessive, committed to the point of lunacy to overcoming the limitations of the body. At various stages of the film he appears to risk his life in pursuit of the ultimate flight and the perfect score. He describes the crowd of bloodthirsty onlookers beneath (which, of course, included Herzog) as ‘50,000 people waiting to see me crash’. But it is in the mesmerising opening moments — as Steiner soars through the air in slow-motion, rigid-backed, mouth open in a fish-gasp, as vulnerable as a newborn baby — that you can sense the sublime euphoria of the moment and gain some insight into what might have driven him to such apparently suicidal lengths.

The film was Herzog’s most recent at the time he did the walk from Munich to Paris, and director Peter Avery’s adaptation of Of Walking in Ice included passages that clearly drew on it. James Livingstone, who took the role of Herzog, had done the pre-performance walk with us, but, perhaps in part because our experience had so little in common with Herzog’s ordeal in terms of physical exertion and accomplishment, he failed to capture the German’s authority or to engage his audience.

Anyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree, according to Herzog, because ‘cinema does not come from abstract academic thinking; it comes from your knees and thighs’. Snug and well-fed, his joints clearly not aching enough, my neighbour drifted off into a light snooze in the course of the performance, while I struggled to keep my eyes open.

We should not be too hard on ourselves, though. Much of what you hear about Herzog is untrue. He himself takes great delight in the myths that have grown up around him and cheerfully colludes in their continuation. He says, ‘You can fight a rumour only with an even wilder rumour.’ It turns out that Herzog’s 500-mile marathon may not be all that he claimed it was. Indeed Lotte Eisner herself is alleged to have disputed it, claiming to have met him off the train in Paris. She did, though, live for a further nine years.

The event will be repeated on 21 November, leaving at 8.15 a.m. from Paddington Station for Cookham and returning via Gerrards Cross to Marylebone.

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