‘Ebert on Herzog’: A Love Story

Nowhere else in the merging of modern cinema and film criticism can you find such a strangely symbiotic relationship.

Roger Ebert
University of Chicago Press
September 2017

Both Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog are such idiosyncratically iconoclastic giants in their respective fields that it’s very likely the world will never see an adequate replacement for each. While Herzog continues to follow his own singular artistic vision, the world has since lost the wit and wisdom of Ebert, arguably the last of the truly great film critics and custodians of the sacred medium. Between the two it becomes clear that there was an unremarked upon but nonetheless present mutual respect and admiration. Though here it tends to come off far more one-sided, save the opening transcript of a workshop held at the Facets Multimedia Center in Chicago in 1979 hosted by Ebert and featured Herzog and a handful of later interviews, there still comes through in their dialogue a meeting of like-minded, thoughtful individuals with a great love for the cinema and exploring the extremes of human creativity.

Since he first encountered Herzog in the late-’60s at a New York film festival, Ebert found himself enraptured with the singular German director. To call it fandom or idol worship would be a disservice, though not too terribly far off the mark. In reading Herzog by Ebert, it quickly becomes clear that, in the eyes of Ebert, an otherwise harsh critic with high standards when it came to the type of cinema he deigned worthy, Herzog could do no wrong. Superlative after superlative is hurled at works ranging from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), culminating in what he deems a great honor, the dedication by Herzog of 2007’s Encounters at the End of the World to Ebert. Where others tended to see Herzog as a humorous eccentric with a voice and approach to filmmaking (documentaries in particular) ripe for parody, Ebert saw pure genius operating on another wavelength.

Indeed, much of Herzog by Ebert reads as fawning praise, the critic wholly enamored of the filmmaker and everything he touches. Apocryphal stories from Herzog sets abound, the director often correcting Ebert’s long-held beliefs (see in particular a one-off reference to the “voodoo of location” that, though refuted by Herzog, is used by Ebert time and again) in favor of whatever truth seemed more in line with his own thinking at that particular moment (many of these dealing directly with the love/hate relationship Herzog shared with actor Klaus Kinski). It’s hard not to read much of these collected works without picturing a young Ebert sitting cross-legged at the feet of Herzog as the latter waxes philosophically about the ins and outs and whats and whys of his approach to filmmaking. Perhaps that’s an overly precious comparison, but the genuine sense of admiration and affection comes through loud and clear.

It’s this latter quality that makes Herzog by Ebert so affecting: Nowhere else in the merging of modern cinema and film criticism can you find such a strangely symbiotic relationship. While one certainly could’ve managed without the other, it’s as though their respective presence helped elevate the other to a level they might not have otherwise achieved had their paths not crossed. No fewer than six of Herzog’s films made their way into Ebert’s Great Movies series, the prerequisite of which being no less than a four-star review. Of those included, only Fitzcarraldo received any sort of widespread recognition, thanks in large part to Herzog’s audacious insistence of actually moving the multi-ton ship over a mountain – something Ebert marvels at whenever given the chance – and the accompanying documentary Burden of Dreams that quite literally shows a man on the verge of losing his mind in pursuit of a seemingly irrational dream.

But it’s Herzog’s never-ending drive to, as he puts it, to create images that we’ve never seen before in order to sustain humanity that seems to most thrill Ebert. Whether it be the sight of that massive ship being hauled up and over a mountain in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, the bizarre visual of the dancing chicken that ends 1977’s Stroszek, or the breathtaking shot of hundreds of actors and extras descending a mountain that opens Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Ebert finds himself time and again enraptured by Herzog’s drive to create new images, often at the expense of any sort of recognizable narrative. This, to his mind, is true cinematic brilliance; an unwillingness to settle for that which has been seen before (this despite Herzog’s reworking of the classic German silent film Nosferatu with manic muse Kinski in the title role filmed in many of the same locations as the original – see again the “voodoo of location”) in favor of what Herzog perceives as life-sustaining and nourishing new images.

Over their nearly half-century long friendship/period of mutual admiration, their relationship existed almost solely within their respective mediums; rarely did their physical paths cross. But it’s precisely this nature of their relationship, acted out in the areas in which they both shone brightest, that makes the narrative arc of Ebert on Herzog so fascinating. Made up of but a handful of one-on-one interviews and profiles, the articles and essays herein give a surprisingly nuanced look at these two men from vastly different backgrounds but both in thrall to the cinema and its history and impact on modern civilization.

RATING 7 / 10