Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Werner Herzog's Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin is exclusively showing in the United States starting February 7, 2021.
When Werner Herzog met Bruce Chatwin, legend has it the two spent forty-eight hours telling stories to each other. “For every one I told him,” Herzog remembers, “he would tell me three. We would sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up and carry on.” The year was 1984, the place Melbourne. Hot on the heels of Fitzcarraldo (1982), Herzog had travelled to Australia to shoot Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), while Chatwin, by then already a literary icon, was working on his fourth book, The Songlines (1987). His first, In Patagonia (1977) had sent the Englishman on a journey to the ends of the world to uncover the mystery behind a piece of “brontosaurs skin.” It had changed travel writing forever, concocting something that cartwheeled across reportage and fantasy, an indescribable and bewitching travelogue brimming with stories, tales, and myths. “You’re the one with the films!” Chatwin said when Herzog phoned him. He’d fallen in love with the deranged landscapes of the director’s 1968 debut feature, Signs of Life, but it was the mutual love for traveling by foot that turned the admiration into friendship—a shared belief, as Chatwin put it, “that walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself, but is a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills.”
There are no transcripts of the stories shared over those two days. No clips immortalizing the many reunions that followed. All that remains of that mystical friendship is a handful of black and white pictures, and the words the two left of each other through the years. Herzog, recalling that “instantaneous connection” in his conversations with Paul Cronin; and Chatwin, describing his friend in a rollicking behind-the-scenes diary of the shooting of Cobra Verde (based on his 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah), in which Herzog saunters through Ghana as a “compendium of contradictions,” a man who was at once “immensely tough yet vulnerable, affectionate and remote, austere and sensual.”
Released thirty years after Chatwin passed away of an AIDS-related illness at 48, Herzog's Nomad is not the first BBC-produced doc on the writer. In 1999, Paul Yule’s In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin offered a largely staid two-part biopic, keeping the subject front and center, with archival footage of his interviews and recordings of his readings reverberating all through the film. If Yule’s was a portrait, Herzog’s own, far more personal take, is a conjuring. “A series of encounters,” as Herzog introduces it, “inspired by Chatwin’s travels,” Nomad is far less concerned with peddling a traditional biography than in continuing the writer’s erratic quest on the nature of human existence. An intimate and often moving journey into Chatwin’s craft and Herzog’s own, it’s a communion of two professional peripatetics, who rejected the incongruity of staying put, and roamed the world in search of deeper, more elusive truths.
Chatwin is not shown in Nomad so much as evoked. His lilting, melodious voice is only heard briefly—as for his face, a luminous visage with spirited blue eyes and a wad of blond hair that made you think of Lawrence of Arabia, Herzog seldom lets it crop up. As befits the nomadic tribes Chatwin followed around the world, Nomad is an oral patchwork of anecdotes from friends, family, and colleagues: imperfect, elusive, and vibrant. Split into eight chapters, it shuttles us from South America to Australia via England and Wales, with Herzog visiting the same places Chatwin once walked through: museums, cathedrals, windswept beaches, deserts, and pampas. There’s a cosmic quality to the meanderings, a feeling amplified by Ernst Reijseger’s choral score. In a film that celebrates traveling as a sacramental facet of our human condition, Chatwin turns into an evanescent presence and Nomad into a seance.
Part of the pleasure of inhabiting Chatwin’s restless travelogues is reckoning with the idea that home is just a matter of circumstances: it is anywhere, and nowhere at once. And though the lesson is certainly not lost in Nomad, even Herzog can’t resist the impulse to glean omens from Chatwin’s childhood hideouts, or from the oddities his parents stuffed the family’s cabinet of wonders with. But for all its veiled “this is where the journey began” moments, the film proceeds balletically, stretching and blurring the connection with its subject. Chatwin once noted the Anglo-Saxon root of his surname meant “a spiraling ascent,” and I like to believe something of that spirit percolates through the film’s fabric.
A trip to Australia to trace the genesis of The Songlines gives Herzog a chance to interrogate Aboriginal people on their cosmogony; a visit to the Southernmost end of Chile sends him on an archival quest to shed light on the genocide of the native nomads. In these moments, Nomad seemingly elides Chatwin to venture into trips of its own, but if the result can feel disorienting, it’s in these roundabout turns that the film is at its most Chatwinesque. Midway through, the writer’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare and Herzog agree that Chatwin was a kind of internet avant la lettre. He was a man of extraordinary erudition and voracious curiosity - in the words of In Patagonia editor Susannah Clapp: “a connoisseur of the extraordinary.” In his countless previous lives, he had joined Sotheby’s at 18 and become an expert in antiquities and Impressionist art, only to bolt from the auction house to study geography in Edinburgh, and then again bolt from Edinburgh to travel the world on behalf of The Sunday Times. “In psychological terms,” fellow polymath Hans Magnus Enzensberger once wrote of him, “Chatwin suffered from Beziehungswahn: a delirium of establishing connections,” which turned his pages into an intricate maze of references and forking paths.
It is only fitting that Nomad should behave just as erratically. Herzog’s detours aren’t digressions, but an extension of Chatwin’s own prose and imagination. And though the film underscores, time and again, how important that mutual flair for walking was in drawing writer and filmmaker close, what turned them into kindred spirits was a similar metaphysics, a certain way of looking at the world and writing poetry out of it. Like Herzog, Chatwin believed that facts do not constitute truth, and that reality hides something deeper. The power of his writings lies not in their authenticity, but in their artificiality. To accuse him of churning out confabulations, of presenting fiction as facts (as his critics often have) is to misunderstand the essence of his artistry.
Early into Nomad, Herzog defends his friend thus: “Chatwin modified facts so that they would resemble truth more than reality.” It’s a quote that aligns the writer with the “ecstatic truth” Herzog defined in his 1999 Minnesota Declaration: that poetic, mysterious and elusive kind of truth that can only be attained through imagination. And though the connection remains implicit, it ricochets everywhere through Nomad. Every vista, every barren landscape throbs with the beauty of things that are normally unseen. To be walking in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin isn’t all too different from venturing into Herzog’s cinema: it’s an invitation to see the world anew. This accounts for the charm of Nomad—a meeting of two souls who crafted mythical tales into voyages of the mind. It’s a tribute worthy of the friendship at its center. In turns playful and stirring. Full of stories. Helplessly restless.