'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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.