When the American director Errol Morris saw Werner Herzog’s film Fata Morgana for the first time, he was heard to mutter: ‘I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like this.’
I didn’t know anyone was allowed to live like this. Herzog’s new memoir Every Man For Himself and God Against All is astonishing and – whether you know his films or not – potentially life-changing, at least for me.
I made a list as I went along of all the situations in which Herzog has nearly died: in a crevasse on K2; under the hooves of a bull in Guanajuato, Mexico; in a giant wave in Peru; shortly after his own birth, when an Allied bomb hit his home in Munich. After the explosion, his mother picked tiny Werner from the pile of rubble and broken glass in his cradle and found him miraculously unscathed. (He started as he meant to go on.)
It’s morning in LA when Herzog appears on screen for our conversation. ‘I think I have lived at least five lives,’ he says, looking pleased. ‘The book could have been a thousand pages long easily but I didn’t want to overdo it.’ A door opens and then closes behind him, illuminating his white hair for a moment in the gentle West Coast sun. I think I spot his third wife, Lena.
At 81, Herzog is a myth as well as a man. François Truffaut called him the most important director alive. Even if you haven’t seen any of his 70-odd films, you’ll know of them (Grizzly Man, Nosferatu, Cave of Forgotten Dreams); you’ll recognise his distinctive Bavarian voice and perhaps the crazy fact that in the making of Fitzcarraldo, he hauled a real 320-tonne steamship over a steep hill in the Peruvian jungle.