Tr. by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg
I wanted to read Werner Herzog’s 1974 diary/memoir Of Walking in Ice, about his voyage on foot from Munich to Paris, in the dead of winter because it seemed like it would be a good fit for my mindset. I was weathering one of the coldest, snowiest, most brutal winters on record in Buffalo, NY. I thought I might feel a sense of comradery with Herzog as I endured sub-zero temperatures every morning on my long walks from the parking lot into school with wind battering my face, the snot freezing inside my nose, and my extremities numb. And, to a certain extent, I was right; but in other ways, the memoir remains inscrutable to me.
Herzog’s memoir is as much an account of a deeply personal journey through memory and time as it is the story of his idiosyncratic decision to visit his friend, the eminent film historian Lotte Eisner, on foot rather than by plane. At times, it’s like peering into another person’s dream or hallucination. The real blends with the imagined, the imagined becomes a part of the landscape that challenges Herzog both physically and mentally at every turn. But it often lacks context, leaving the reader feeling adrift and disconnected.
But Herzog’s goal was never to make the reader feel comfortable or included. Anyone who’s lived through a long, punishing winter knows the extent to which it can isolate you. The term “cabin fever” is, for us Western New Yorkers, a very real disease that can wreak havoc on your mind and body. At the present moment, it has been days since I spent more than ten or fifteen minutes outside of my home or workplace. Even my dog won’t venture further than three feet into our backyard, which has become unrecognizable due the snow that has accumulated. I haven’t been to the gym in months. I’ve been surviving on bowls of cereal, cheese, and canned goods for the past four days because I can’t bear the thought of driving anywhere for anything less than a life or death situation. I drink more, I sleep more, and generally live a lifestyle that punishes my mind and body in myriad ways.
So in many ways I can relate to the loneliness that Herzog feels as he traipses through the German and French countryside; while I am trapped inside, Herzog faces the opposite predicament. The faces of his fellow man peering out at him from behind window and doors become strange and unfriendly. Even animals seem to shun him as he passes by them in the fields. He sleeps in abandoned vacation homes that stand as lonely as he is without anyone to animate them.
Herzog’s walk is no mere whim; it’s a spiritual challenge. He believes that by making the pilgrimage on foot, he will be able to spare his friend from her terminal illness (although the book does not say, Eisner would, in fact, live for another nine years after Herzog’s journey). He travels through the non-man’s-land created by highway systems, often contemplating the detritus he sees by the roadside. This is not a story of purification via the crucible of nature; rather, it is about confronting the spaces, both interior and exterior, that no one bothers to travel — the spaces in-between starting point and destination. In so doing, Herzog is transformed into an outsider in his own homeland. He is a stranger in a familiar land. In this respect, it’s a kind of anti-travel narrative.
If the walk is Herzog’s spiritual challenge, reading about it can also feel like a crucible. Of Walking in Ice is not always particularly easy or pleasant to read. Sometimes you begin to feel lost inside Herzog’s mind, and you are once again reminded that this is a personal diary, not originally intended for consumption by the public. Nonetheless, Herzog’s tortuous prose makes you feel his pain. Take, for example, this passage, which takes place just a little over halfway into his journey: “As I walk the word millet, which I always liked so much, just won’t leave my mind, the word lusty as well. Finding a connection between the two words becomes torture. To walk lustily works, and to reap millet with a sickle also works. But millet and lusty together doesn’t work.” The book is full of similar digressions, some of which are fairly explicit in meaning, and others that are not. He often litanizes the names of towns he has passed through, a practice that becomes a kind of meditative chant. They give you the feeling of a fever dream in which the same thoughts run through your head over and over again with slight deviations and impressions pulled from memory, the kind that you wake from feeling nauseous and drained. The further you read, the more you feel the anguish of the repetitiveness of walking alone.
At the same time, if you’re a fan of Herzog’s films (as I am), you will appreciate many of his little asides, like this, one of many interludes that take place inside roadside taverns and inns where Herzog stops for brief respites:
The second beer is heading down to my knees already. A boy stretches a cardboard barricade between two tables with some string, securing it at both ends with Sellotape. The regulars are shouting ‘Detour!’ ‘Who do you think you are?’ the waitress says. Then the music starts playing very loudly again. The regulars would love to see the boy reach under the waitress’s skirt, but he doesn’t dare. Only if this were a film would I consider it real.
These moments often have the feeling of tragi-comedy, especially as Herzog begins to lose his sense of reality and self: “The man at the petrol station gave me such an unreal look that I rushed to the john to convince myself in front of the mirror that I was still looking human”; “The Universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void . . . This is the situation. A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirl around my head . . . How can I go shopping? They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head” (51). He moves with perfect ease from Deep Philosophical Thoughts to the utterly mundane in a way that is reminiscent of the eccentric film voiceovers that have become the trademark feature of his documentaries. I could not help but read these passages in Herzog’s own voice.
As an addendum to the new edition of the book, a tribute speech to Lotte Eisner provides some closure to the diary. The speech is both touching and quintessentially Herzogian. He writes, “Lotte Eisner, we want you with us even when you are a hundred years old, but I herewith release you from this terrible incantation. You are now allowed to die. I say that without any frivolity, with deep respect for death, which is the only thing we can be sure of.” It also sheds light on the reasons for Herzog’s deep devotion to Eisner, whom he credits with the renewal of German film culture in the wake of the devastation of World War II. For Herzog, Eisner has been the saving grace of everything he believes in and works towards.
In light of the tribute, the concluding words of Of Walking in Ice are deeply touching: “Together, I said, we shall boil fire and stop fish. Then she [Eisner] looked at me and smiled very delicately, and since she knew that I was someone on foot and therefore unprotected, she understood me. For one splendid, fleeting moment something mellow flowed through my deadly tired body. I said to her, open the window, from these last days onward I can fly.” They remind the reader of how beautiful and liberating it is to be finally understood — to communicate without saying a word. And isn’t that, in the end, the point of film?
Heather Duncan is a freelance writer and current graduate student at SUNY Buffalo. Her interests include sci-fi/horror fiction, traveling, and her dog, Gracie.