New Again: Werner Herzog

Published June 17, 2015

As a director, actor, author, producer, and screenwriter, Werner Herzog is a true multihyphenate within the film industry. His movies garner rave reviews and critical acclaim, yet have also been the subject of controversies. Although he’s most recognized as a pioneering figure of German cinema, he has also penned autobiographical books. For example, when Herzog found out his mentor and good friend Lotte Eisner was dying, he packed a duffel bag and took off on foot to make the journey he thought would keep her from dying. During this trek from Munich to Paris, the writer noted everything in his diary, which was eventually published in 1978 under the name Of Walking on Ice. On Monday evening, Herzog gave a special reading of his notes at NeueHouse in New York.

In honor of his legacy and reading, here we revisit an archival story by Bruce Chatwin, whose book The Viceroy of Ouidah was turned into a movie (Cobra Verde) by Herzog. In the piece, Chatwin narrates the tumultuous, amusing experiences of being on set with Herzog as he makes a movie. Much like Herzog read excerpts from his journey to Eisner, Chatwin recounts his own time with Herzog, much like Herzog read and recounted excerpts from his journey to Eisner. —Saloni Gajjar

Gone to GhanaBy Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin tracks Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski through the wilds of West Africa.

In January 1971, I paid my first visit to the West African country known then and from time immemorial as Dahomey, and in particular to the decayed slaving towns on the coast—Ouidah, Porto Novo, Grand Popo—which in their heyday exported more slaves to the Americas than did any other part of the continent. The towns are referred to collectively as Little Brazil—a legacy of generations of mulattoes and manumitted blacks who “returned” to Africa in the 19th century and set themselves up in the slave business.

At Ouidah the two sights of the town are the Python Temple and Sigbomey, the Brazilian casa grande built by the slaver millionaire Dom Francisco Felix de Souza. He had to come to the Slave Coast sometime after 1800 as lieutenant of the Portuguese fort, and after staging a palace revolution in which he deposed one king of Dahomey for another, he set about reorganizing the Dahomean army—with its corps of Amazon warriors—as the most efficient military machine in Africa.

As a reward for his services, Ghezo, the new king, awarded de Souza the title of chacha, or viceroy, of Ouidah and a monopoly over the sale of slaves, which had recently been declared illegal by the British government.

De Souza owned a fleet of slave ships, some with the new Bermudan rig, which beat faster to windward than the frigates of the West African Squadron. Prince de Joinville, a son of Louis Phillipe, came to call and described fantastic displays of opulence—silver services, gaming saloons, billiard saloons—and the chacha himself wandering about distractedly in a dirty caftan. Toward the end of his life, however, the slaver fell foul of his friend the king, was ruined by his Brazilian partners and was abandoned by his brood of mulatto sons. He died a madman, and on Ghezo’s orders, was buried in a barrel of rum, together with a beheaded boy and girl, under his Goanese four-poster bed.

The bed is still here. At its foot was a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi—the slaver’s namesake—while on the bed table stood a silver elephant, the family emblem, and a half-empty bottle of Gordon’s gin in case the old man woke up thirsty. An old black woman showed me around, a de Souza herself, who expatiated in halting French on the days when her ancestors had been rich, famous and white. When she pulled aside the bed sheets, she revealed, instead of a mattress, a mount of fetish material: blood, feathers, palm oil, and metal images of Dagbe the Holy Python.

Here plainly was a story worth telling, but when I came back seven years later, Dahomey had changed its name to People’s Republic of Benin. The “thought” of Kim II Sung was all the rage and, to my amazement, I found myself one morning arrested as a mercenary, stripped to my underpants, and forced to stand against a wall in the scarring sun while vultures wheeled overhead and the crowd outside the barracks chanted “Mort au mercenaire!” A platoon practiced arms drills behind my back, and the soldier guarding me cooned melodiously, “Ils vont vous tuer, massacre meme!”After this interruption I lost the stamina to pursue my researches, though I had acquired ripe material for a novel. Since it was impossible to fathom the alien mentality of my characters, my only hope was to advance the narrative in a sequence of cinematographic images, and here I was strongly influenced by the films of Werner Herzog. I remember saying, “If this were ever made into a movie, only Herzog could do it.” But that was a pipe dream. The novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah, appeared in 1980 to the bemusement of reviewers, some of whom found its cruelties and baroque prose unstomachable. 

About three years later I was traveling in the Australasian outback, and on returning to the motel one day in Alice Springs, I found a note saying that Herzog was looking for me. Someone had given him one of my books when he was making Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon. He wondered if I’d be interested in helping with the script of a new film about the Aboriginals, Where Green Ants Dream.He was at Melbourne airport to meet my plane, an ascetic figure in threadbare fatigue pants and a sweat shirt that exposed the laughing—skull tattoo on his shoulder. Within a couple of minutes our conversation had taken off in various abstruse directions.

It happened that he and I were tackling the same subject, the relation of Aboriginals to their land. He had his ideas. I had mine. I felt that to mix them would only add to the general confusion. I did, however, find him a dog-eared copy of The Viceroy of Ouidah. He said, “This is a text I like. One day we will make it into a movie.” The line he liked best was given to me by the eight-year-old Gregoire de Souza, who, contemplating a trail of white ants that led into and unplugged refrigerator, said, “Le frigo existe.”I thought no more of it. I saw Werner once or twice or he would phone me from a fishing trip in Northumberland, where his brother-in-law was an Anglican person. He was. I discovered a compendium of contradictions: immensely tough yet vulnerable, affectionate and remote, austere and sensual, not particularly well—adjusted to the strains of everyday life but functioning efficiently under extreme conditions.

He was also the only person with whom I could have a one-to-one conversation on what I would call the sacramental aspect of walking. He and I share a belief that walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself but is a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills. He sums up his position in a stern prenouncement: “Walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin.” A striking example of this philosophy was his winter pilgrimage to see Lotte Eisner.

Lotte Eisner, film critic and associate of Fritz Lang in Berlin, had emigrated in early 1930s to Paris, where she helped found the Cinematheque. Much later, after seeing Werner’s Signs of Life, she wrote to Lang in California, “I have seen the work of a wonderful young German filmmaker.” To which he replied, “No, it is impossible.”

She was soon to become a guiding spirit of the new German cinema, giving young directors the benefit of her immense experiences and, because she was Jewish, helping to reestablish continuity with a great tradition of filmmaking that had been shattered under Hitler.

Werner, I’m told, was her favorite. And in 1974 , when he heard she was dying, he set out walking, through the ice and snow, from Munich to Paris, confident that somehow he could walk away from her sickness. By the time he reached her apartment she had recovered and went on to live another 10 years.

As for filming The Viceroy, I thought no more of the matter until I had a call from a New York agent offering to buy an option on the rights. The man had the grace to say the book was not hot property, and the sum he mentioned was derisively small. I called up Werner, who without a flicker of hesitation said, “I’ll buy the rights”—and did so.

I thought no more of it. The difficulties of filming in West Africa seemed insuperable. I then picked up an impossibly rare disease in Western China, yet rumors reached my hospital bed that the project was underway. Klaus Kinski would play the part of Dom Francisco, the slaver. The title would be changed to Cobra Verde (the book is peppered with references to snakes and snake worship). The first half of the film would be shot in Colombia, not in Brazil. Ouidah would be Fort Elmina on the coast of Ghana, and the up-country palace of Dahomean kings would be the mud-brick complex that Werner was having built in a grassland dotted with baobabs in the north of the country, near Tamale.

I first saw the palace on a Tuesday, as my plane came in to land. It could have existed since the Iron Age but was, in fact, finished on Saturday. Werner’s girlfriend, Christina, saw us dip our wings and came to fetch me from the airstrip.

Breakfasting in the shade. The cameras are turning and the king of Dahomey (played by a real king) is carried from his palace in a litter. His courtiers surround him, yelling their heads off. Most of them hold the asin, which are animal-headed standards covered in gold leaf. The king himself is smothered in gold jewelry, much of it real, and wears an imposing gilded crown. All the actors wear robes of yellow, orange or tawny brown, which, set against the mud wall, gives an effect of somber and glittering richness.

The king flexes his biceps and flicks his fly whisk. Chintz umbrellas float like jellyfish above his head. “It’s too much for me,” says the doctor who is Portuguese. “I can’t believe it. Really it’s too much.”

Other movie  directors, faced with the problem of re-creating a 19th century African court, would have put it in the hands of the set and costume designers and ended up with a fake. Werner, hiring a real court and not hanging a thing except the odd Taiwanese watch, more than makes up for lack of historical accuracy by establishing an authenticity of tone.

Dust-stained, wearing broken plastic sandals and a wet handkerchief tied around his forehead, Werner sprints about from the camera to the actors and back. He bumps into the fetish priest, an androgynous figure pirouetting round and round in white crinoline. He apologizes and sets the man spinning once more.

I’m amazed by the old-fashioned Germanic courtliness with which he handles his African cast. Without a hint of condescension he takes a woman by the arm, as if he were escorting her to a ball, and shows her how to walk through the Great Gate. The others follow. For the next he says, “Ladies, you now have the privilege of giving us the best screams.” Or to the king, “Nana, would you please lean back so we can see your very royal face.”

On the tie means of the Great Gate stand the hunters: real hunters, members of a hunting tribe in the north. Their pants are sewn from strips of indigo cotton, their jerkins covered with gris-gris. Their wear quivers full of arrows, and civet skins dangle from their belts. Their basketwork helmets are equipped with buffalo horns, which, silhouetted against the sky, make them look like the guardians of Valhalla.

Werner cannot resist the odd Wagnerian touch. He renamed two Brazilian girls in the script Valkyria and Wandelaide, and when I tax him that the music of Wagner could not have reached Brazil in the early 1800s, he laughs.

When he first suggested I come to Ghana, I was too weak to climb stairs and said, “Do you want a corpse on your hands?” Later I decided I’d be fit to travel, with one proviso: if I brought a wheelchair, someone would push me around. The answer came back: “A wheelchair will get you nowhere in terrain where I am shooting. I will give you four hammockeers and a sunshade bearer.” Now that invitation, even if one had been dying, was irresistible.

The king, His Highness Nana Agyefi Kwame II, Omanhene of Nsein, is a man of magnificent presence and a slightly extended upper lip. When Werner first floated the idea of using a real king instead of an actor, his Ghanaian colleagues said it was unthinkable. But Nana, like most kings, was obviously longing to play in a movie. The snag was how we, a good king, could assume the role of a bad king and be deposed. Yet he comes across as a far more convincing character than the cardboard tyrant of my book, as a man who knows he is doomed and faces his fate with equanimity. While his women get ready to strangle him, he says with all the weariness in the world, “I will go now and get some sleep.”

The courtyard wall is lined with skulls, and the lintels and steps are paved with skulls. “How,” I ask Werner at lunch, “did you get away with all those skulls? What did the villagers think?”

“Oh, they liked them. They built with enthusiasm.”

The trouble with making the skulls out of plaster instead of plastic is that they tend to get chipped and have to be repainted with a thin layer of mud and water. This mixture is known as swish, and the “swish” boy, who has skin and hair of a uniform golden brown, carries a sheaf of paintbrushes stuck in his curls, steps about gingerly, and paints out the whitish scars.

A huge crowd has assembled on the fringe of the set: villagers, townspeople, Peace Corps workers. The problem is to keep them quiet while shooting, since, as always in Africa, a lively trade goes on. Women sell fritters and boys sell lurid-colored sweets. One young man is peddling a substance in plastic packets. This, I assume, must be ganja but turns out to be false teeth.

The ladies of the court are forever slipping off between scenes to change into something fresh. Werner asks, “Do they understand nothing of continuity?”

The Viceroy of Ouidah has a complicated time structure and ends with the chacha’s daughter on her deathbed remembering the death of her father over a hundred years earlier. This seemed impossible to incorporate in the film, and Werner was puzzled how to end it until Kinski took the matter from his hands.

The week before my arrival, at Elmina, there was a scene in which Kinski had to haul a canoe down to the beach. Along this coast there are two lines of breakers, with a strip of white water in between. Beyond the second line there are sharks, but swimming is always dangerous because of the undertow. A freak breaker caught him unawares and thumped him onto the beach. Suddenly conscious that he was playing the final scene, Kinski allowed himself to be dragged into the waves and rolled back, time after time, onto the sand.

In retelling the story, Werner seems almost overcome with gratitude (there were some bad scenes later in Colombia, for which gratitude would not be appropriate). “This wonderful human creature,” he says. Or: “This exceptional human being. I tried to consider the film without Kinski. It was impossible. It was inevitable he should play it.” 

Kinski—he himself would be the first to admit it—is not easy. He leaves a trail of smoldering resentness wherever he goes. But the love-hate feud between him and Werner—which has taken on legendary proportions in film gossip—is a bit overdrawn.

But they do make noise in public.

When not wanted on the set, Kinski retires to his bungalow, sleeps, reads, cooks and repels everyone—except Werner who knocks on his door.

In the afternoon, Kinski arrives at the palace: a sexagenarian adolescent all in white with a mane of yellow hair. Not exactly my idea of a Brazilian slaver but let that pass. The scene he has to play is one in which, smeared in black makeup and trussed like a pig for the spit, he must crouch and endure the insults of the king. “Why have you sent 350,000 warships to my shore? Why did you kill my greyhound?”

I overheard Kinski wisecracking with the set photographer and introduce myself. The arctic eyes swivel around: “Oh, you’re the one who wrote the book? I liked that book. I’m sorry we had to change it, but I think we are doing something very rhythmical here.”

He changes into a blue Napoleonic officer’s coat—genuine but moth-eaten—trimmed with silver braid.

“Maybe,” he turns to me, “the film will help the book.”

“Maybe.”

I go and sit with the continuity girl.

“He seems in a very good mood,” I say.

“That is because he has made everyone very angry.”

One of Kinski’s quirks is that he insists on demonstrating how each shot should be framed. This caused a dreadful scene with the original cameraman, who left Elmina in a huff. A replacement, Viktor Ruzicka came out at a moment’s notice from Prague. An imperturbably cheerful man, he knows precisely how to handle the star, when to be indulgent and when to be firm.

“Hey Viktor,” Kinski shouts, “Do they still have toilet paper in Czechoslovakia? Polanski told me that in Warsaw—”

“Of course we have toilet paper.”

“Okay,” Werner interrupts, “Shall we shoot it now?”

“That’s what we are here for,” says Kinski.

The makeup man comes and dabs more black on his face. Werner, meanwhile, is organizing the crowd.

“Now everyone look at the white man,” he calls.

“Black and white,” says Kinski.

Thursday morning. Nothing is happening. Nana is late for his deposition scene. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be deposed after all? But finally he appears, striding across the courtyard in an orange-and-purple kenti cloth. He inclines his head to me and says, “Good morning, Englishman!” He had been checking that his courtiers were all safely on the bus.

A second king, Nana of Elmina, also plays a part in the film and has turned up here unannounced to see how things are going. I suspect he wants to do another act. He is nattily turned out in a crimson robe sewn with purple satin ribbon. Together we watch the deposition scene. He complains of fever.

At Elmina the screenplay called for him to abase himself before Dom Francisco and to fan him. Since Nana had never fanned anyone in his life, this was quite a psychological blow. “I am totally confused,” he said, “But I will do it for the purpose of the fillum.”

He has also read The Viceroy of Ouidah.

“Well, sir,” he says to me, “you have written a very roundabout book.”

“You live in England,” Kinski asks.

“Not much.”

“I don’t even want to change planes in England.”

A man with about 40 dogs on leashes has been sighted on the outskirts of the village. All the dogs walk proudly ahead of him. The man travels around the villages buying up dogs. He then sells them in the north, where dog is eaten.

The houses of the village are built of mud with conical roofs of thatch. One of the shutters is chalked with the words “Simple Boy.”

Viktor orders it to be shut. From within comes the quacking of a Muscovy duck.

Picorna is a virus that attacks men and animals, and as you drive into Tamale, there is a notice that reads, “Feeling the heat? Come to Picorna Entertainment Centre for a nice cold beer.”

Nearby is another, less frequented bar: “Ayatollah Drinks Bar No Credit Given.”

What the eye sees, the hand reaches out for. In Ghana the largest unit of currency is worth about a dollar. To make simple payments, you have to run around with a shopping bag full of bank notes. The girl in charge of cash is dismayed by the ever swelling number of open hands.

Nana of Elmina, never at a loss for pious homily, has this to say: “It’s like pig-breeding. Some pigs are greedy feeders. Some are nice pigs. You can never tell.” 

The orders for the day include the following: Attention—250 Amazons arrive from Accra by night; prepare accommodations at the Army barracks.

The Amazons (Werner calls the Amazones) are nice girls from Accra with names like Eunice, Beatrice, Patience, Primrose, Maud and Rhonda. At Elmina there were 700 of them, trained in machete-drill by a lion-faced Italian stunt director, Benito Stefanelli. They behaved very badly. They outraged villagers by singing songs of fantastic obscenity. They went on strike for more money and nearly staged a riot.

At 8:30 in the morning their buses arrive at the palace. We hear shrieks and yells on the fat side of the wall. “The situation may get out of hand,” says Werner in a somber voice. “Someone will have to pray for us.”

The Amazons saunter across the yard and then go off to change, or rather strip into thir Amazon costume: a yellow cache-sex, breasts smeared with whiting and for a helmet, a scarlet gourd dotted with cowrie shells. They carry machetes, shields and spears. The spears have their tips bent over but one could still take your eye out.

Waiting—as always on a film set—for something to happen, I sit with the girls and overhear snatches of conversation.

“Take of your brassiere, Jemima!”

“How can you take up with that coward?”

“Yeah, but what can you do? He is a human being.”

“He is only walking by himself. He has no wife.”

“Women in Europe do not do that, Rhoda!”

The day is unbearably hot—about 113 F, 45 C—and the Amazons are wilting fast. They have been called on to make a spectacular charge on the palace. We sit in the portico and watch the rehearsal. Suddenly the girls are hurtling toward us, spears waving, with Werner barefoot in the lead, “Come on, girls!” he shouts, “Faster! Faster!”

We have supper in a white-painted bungalow known as the Casino, and we are drinking our umpteenth beer of the evening when the Amazons arrive. There has been some dispute about their pay. They have already been paid more than their contract, but that does not make them happy. Egged on by Kinski—who declares “I’m for the girls!”—they surround the Casino and raise a fearful din. We draw the curtains but the wind draws them open. Faces appear on the louvers. “You will die.” “You think you can stuff a black woman. You’ll see.”

Werner paces the room in a state of extreme agitation. Usually he puts all such transactions in the hands of the subordinates, and now they’ve bungled it. The Portuguese doctor quite loses his head. “I’m an African,” he shouts (he was born in Mozambique). “I know how serious this shit is.” Then when he has calmed down a little, he adds sententiously, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”

Outside, the Amazons kick and shove the building, which under their combined weight could collapse. One suspects, however, that they are not really trying. But they do burst in. Glasses fly. A girl gets kicked, and the man who did the kicking turns red and white with rage. Not so Werner, who towers above the assembly and announces, “My sense of justice tells me,”—at which the kicker screams, “You mean your sense of stupidity.”

There is some ugly talk of bringing in the army. Instead, Werner—a monument of sanity in a cast of nervous—slips out through a side door and confronts the girls. At the sound of his habitual cry—”Girls! Girls”—the rumpus simmers down. He and their spokeswoman, Salome, immediately reach a compromise. Laughing happily, the girls go back to their buses. Werner comes back in, exhausted, and says to me, “That was only an arabesque.”

Next day. Sunday. A day of rest. The door of the Casino is covered with red mud footprints. Another drama is unfolding at the military barracks. As part of her equipment, each Amazon has been given a foam-rubber mattress, but the soldiers, having shared the mattresses all night, make off with them in the morning.

“It’s disgusting,” Kinski tells Werner, “Do something.”

Werner and I drive to the barracks, a collection of rickety wooden buildings, where he must again defuse the situation. Eagerly the girls cluster around him. With a hierophantic gesture, he cries, “Girls! Girls! I love you.” A squeaky voice pipes back, “And we love you, too!”

He apologizes, sorrowfully, for the scene last night. He apologizes for the stolen mattresses. “If I could take justice from my rib, I would give it to you.” Alas, there is nothing to be done.

Next, the Amazons’ bus drivers, claiming that the mattress crisis has delayed them, insist on an extra day’s pay.

“Let’s get out of here,” says Werner, “Quick!”

Tuesday. There is one more scene to be shot in Africa, a night scene in which the future King Ghezo rescues the Brazilian from prison. I would like to stay, but the plane for London leaves Accra tonight. Besides, I am needed to relay messages to Munich: on the logistics of getting the crew plus a ton of equipment from Tamale to Bogota via Madrid.

A few weeks later on another plane I sit next to a New York lawyer whose client, a big Hollywood name, once chickened out of one of Werner’s films.

“Herzog?” the man said. “Don’t go on a trip with him.”

“But I have.”

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE MARCH 1988 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

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