a phenotype of
of the useless.
On a scene from Little Dieter Needs to Fly, one of his best although not too well known documentaries, Werner Herzog asks its protagonist what made him want to become a military pilot. And Dieter Dengler tells him that, during the Second World War, his village in the Black Forest suffered an ally air raid. He was still a child and, instead of hiding, he stayed at home looking out the window. One of the aircrafts flew so close to his house that for an instant he made eye contact with the pilot: with the cockpit open, he was firing his machine gun and resembled “the vision of an all powerful being.” That image determined his life: becoming what had obsessed him so much was from then on his sole obsession.
That brief fragment would be enough to understand the fulcrum of “heroism” for the Bavarian director. But we could discover it as well in many other of his characters, from the most megalomaniac ones, such as Aguirre, traitor to God and the King, who wants to engender with his own daughter a new breed in the midst of the jungle, to the most discreet ones such as engineer Dorrington, who tries to fly a little plane of his own invention over the unknown Guyana forests. And including, of course, his own self, determined to save his ill friend Lotte Eisner through the act of faith of walking the distance between Munich and Paris in the middle of winter, enter the evacuated isle of Guadalupe to shoot the eruption of La Soufrière or making a boat cross the Amazon forest during the shooting of Fitzcarraldo.
His is an unstoppable compulsion, an inner necessity that doesn’t answer to the dictates of utilitarian reason. It isn’t, without a doubt, a professional and stereotyped sort of adventurousness, something that Herzog despises because it feeds on clichés such as “the overcoming of limits” and only looks for personal notoriety. On the contrary, it’s born from a call, a dream, a hallucination, and it aspires to reach, as the German director has repeated innumerable times, a “poetic and ecstatic truth.” A revelation reserved to, in climber Lionel Terray’s happy expression that Herzog will use in one of his writings, the “conquerors of the useless.”
We’re talking about motivations at the same time as recognizable as particular that there isn’t a better way to describe them than as “Herzogian.” In the same way that we can define a character as Fordian, Melvillian, Hawksian or Bressonian for any film lover to understand what they are like, Herzog’s characters have the rare privilege of carrying with them a surname that has been elevated to a category, and, in this case, a category so powerful so as to overflow the margins of his own films, because his own trace is often seen in other people’s work. Contemporary documentaries and the most adult type of adventure films have found in the anthropology of urgency, of fever and of rapture a prolific vein. Without forcing memory too much and sticking to just movies that have appeared in the last years, I can think of the Philippe Petit who secretly unites the Twin Towers with a funambulist cable (both on Robert Zemeckis’s recent The Walk and in the previous Man on Wire), the Slava Fetisov who leads Gabe Polsky’s Red Army (and who received the blessing of Herzog himself in the shape of executive production) or the closer Garrell of Sobre la marxa, with his framework of cabins, dikes and forest labyrinths following no other plan or design than that of his own instinct. In fact, Richard Stanley’s damned trip in Lost Soul is also Herzogian: a connection reinforced by the explanation of a film project excessively passionate which ends up with one of those spectacular collapses, with the grotesque taking place of the sublime, so typical of the German director.
But the strength of this archetype resides in its force to transcend disciplines and even historical times. Geniuses can even redefine the past, and so the idea of the “Herzogian hero” doesn’t circumscribe itself only to modern Seventh Art characters. On the contrary, we can identify his trace, without caring too much about anachronisms, in climbing or exploring pioneers (few adventures remind us of it so much as Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific voyage on the Kon Tiki or William Barentsz’s failed attempt to open the North-East path), in all types of hallucinating conspirators (how many echoes of a sombre empire does the life journey of unclassifiable Baron Ungern Von Sternberg have, for example?), in visionaries who are confronted with their bare hands to overwhelming tasks (would illustrious representatives of art brut such as Justo Gallego or Ferdinand Cheval be out of place in that gallery of lonely manic men populating his filmography?), in extreme personalities that have been narrated by others but would have been perfectly described by Werner (Eduard Limónov? Bobby Fischer? Brian Clough?), and, to sum it up, in so many of those individuals carried away by fatal drifts, as beautiful as apparently futile, that we know of.
And the most decisive thing isn’t questioning whether the term is useful today as an efficient description of a series of attitudes and ways of seeing and moving around the world, but its total and subversive validity. In an age in which market values and positivism rule, convention dictates that our heroes should accumulate objective and verifiable achievements, looking for sport, economical, artistic, social, etc. goals, with a quantifiable final balance. In fact, the idea of heroism in itself has become suspicious and it’s considered either with cynicism or with open hostility as soon as it moves away from those gregarious parameters. What it’s fashionable now are middle-class figures who look for objectives easily understandable by common sense, with agreed on collective and charitable ideals. The chasers of goals untranslatable into 140 characters, into a quantifiable value, into common places of progressivism or liberalism -frequently speculative- are the objects of mockery, contempt or commiseration. And for that same reason, all the lunatics that might deserve the adjective “Herzogian”, those marginal characters completely absorbed in unproductive dreams, displaced from any centre and middle way, frequently condemned to spectacular shipwrecks -in Herzog, there’s never any space left for that motivational fraud that says that when we really want something, the universe conspires for us to get it; quite on the contrary-, are men who have declared themselves as rebels. They carry the flame of the impossible and the free, the ultimate fire that enlightens and warms us while the dark lessons go on and on.