The Cosmic, Outrageous, Ecstatic Truths of Werner Herzog

EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF AND GOD AGAINST ALL: A Memoir, by Werner Herzog. Translated by Michael Hofmann.

I don’t believe a word of the filmmaker Werner Herzog’s new memoir, which bears the self-deprecating title “Every Man for Himself and God Against All.” (What is this, a Metallica album?) But then, I’m not sure we’re supposed to take much of it at face value.

Like Jim Smiley in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits, Herzog is an old-school, concierge-level bluffer. And ham. He won’t tell you the truth, not quite, unless it falls out of his pocket accidentally, as if it were a cigarette lighter.

Speaking about his documentaries, Herzog uses the phrase “ecstatic truth.” When you imagine that phrase uttered in his droll, stoic German accent, it sounds less evangelical and less like something Kellyanne Conway would say.

The first three paragraphs of “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” indicate what the rest is going to be like, so you have time to hunker down against something firm. Paragraph 1 begins: “The lamentations ended about noon.” Paragraph 2 depicts the noble teenage Herzog fishing for cuttlefish (“At nightfall, I went out to sea”) off the south coast of Crete. Paragraph 3 includes these two sentences, after a catharsis that involves staring up at the suddenly fishy cosmos:

All right, Peter Pan, let’s go.

The writer Douglas Adams coined a term, “pulverbatch,” to denote “the first paragraph on the blurb of a dust jacket in which famous authors claim to have had a series of menial jobs in their youth.” Herzog’s book is one luxuriant, well-waxed batch of pulver.

He grew up in rural Bavaria, and then in Munich. Before making his early films, he tells us, he worked as a minder of cows, a laborer, a spot welder, a larcenous parking warden, a rodeo clown and a smuggler of stereos and then guns into Mexico. Of what it’s like to have been internationally famous for more than 50 years, and to have spent a great deal of time on daises at film festivals and in penthouse suites, there is vastly less documentation. The wise reader, still hunkered, will at this point reach for a helmet, and check for his or her wallet.

In nearly all these occupations, Herzog was banged up. He is, for sure, the world’s most grandiloquent crash-test dummy. He’s fallen off a barn and broken both arms. He’s had 14 stitches in his chin, a soccer injury, and a tooth pulled after declining anesthesia because the pain was synonymous with “the way I expected the world to be.” His collarbone was detached from his breastbone while ski jumping. He has been lifted off his feet by random explosions. He fell 40 feet on an opera stage and sprained his neck. He was hit so hard by a stuntman while filming a scene for a movie that two crowns popped loose from his molars. He has intentionally leaped into a cactus field and has eaten his shoe (which he cooked at Chez Panisse). He missed an airplane that crashed, and came close to being beheaded in Peru by the Shining Path. He was shot, and “slightly wounded,” while being interviewed by the BBC in Los Angeles. A few days later, because he is Werner Herzog:

On this book’s cover, in a still photo from his documentary about volcanoes, Herzog looks like Wile E. Coyote after being smashed by a boulder. No wonder that, on difficult shoots, he carries “Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible in a facsimile reprint,” so the Book of Job is nearby and he can meditate on the universality of unmerited suffering.

The bulk of “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” consists of Herzog’s thoughts on the subjects that interest him, about which he has made movies or would like to: cave paintings, hypnosis, twins, the so-called vanishing area paradox, nuclear waste, forgery, thought transference, deep space, Antarctica and mummies.

There is one intentionally funny sentence. Writing about livestock auctioneers, he says, “I always wanted to direct a ‘Hamlet’ and have all the parts played by ex-champion livestock auctioneers; I wanted the performance to come in at under 14 minutes.”

This book has been translated from the German by the superb Michael Hofmann. But every so often the language is awkward. One unfortunate sentence begins, “My father entered one of my half brothers, Ortwin.” Any G-rated sentence that begins that way and does not include the words “in a contest” is a strange one.

Klaus Kinski, right, in the 1982 film “Fitzcarraldo.”Credit…Werner Herzog Film

There is a good deal here about the making of Herzog’s best-known film, “Fitzcarraldo” (1982), and about his testy friendship with the professionally baleful Klaus Kinski. This stuff has been covered better elsewhere.

Herzog has an ego the size of downtown Buenos Aires. Other people appear in this memoir — wives, lovers, collaborators on his films — but with the exception of his friend, the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, they’re not observed closely. They’re as hollow as chocolate bunnies, described in a way that brings to mind a line from Mary Gaitskill: “To overpraise is a subtle form of disrespect — and everybody knows it.”

This book will be a boon to those people who, after dinner, sometimes like to unwind by reading choice morsels from books aloud. There are some instant classics here.

Happily, there’s more where those came from.

EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF AND GOD AGAINST ALL: A Memoir | By Werner Herzog | Translated by Michael Hofmann | 355 pp. | Penguin Press | $30

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