Werner Herzog at Amherst College (2012). Photo credit: Eddy Pula.

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Knowing that I was a conflicted fan of Werner Herzog, a student of mine who works at a bookstore got me an advance copy of what is widely being called the eighty-one-year-old Bavarian filmmaker’s “first novel,” The Twilight World. The story concerns the famous real-life account of WWII Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda’s occupation of Lubang Island in the Philippines for twenty-nine years after Japan’s 1945 surrender. Though I initially planned to write a review of the book, I soon realized that it was not a story to which I could contribute anything noteworthy.

Then, however, I saw Herzog’s June 23, 2022 interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers. At one point during the interview, with awkward deliberateness, Herzog clarifies that he was not an eye witness to the events of Onoda’s life—before offering the reason behind his caveat:

Today, you see, we have too many fake news [sic]. And you have to tell what is happening and what is my own invention. And sometimes I would invent a few things in order to make some essence of the man visible: his dignity, his stoicism, his perseverance, his dreams, his nightmares. So all of this has to sometimes be invented.

A lot of that is classic Herzog, but to illustrate why this particular artist distinguishing fact from fiction in regard to events he didn’t witness is so significant, some background is necessary. I realized that there had in fact been something nagging in the periphery of my mind as I read The Twilight World. It had to do with the word “novel.” It had to do with the novel’s relationship to truth. The triangulation of the novel and “fake news” and Werner Herzog’s whole deal signals discomfiting connections between the United States’ current flirtations with authoritarianism and certain notions of artistic freedom.

On October 30, 1999, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Herzog read the audience a short manifesto, much of it a harangue against Cinema Verité and the “truth of the accountants.” Some of the “Minnesota Declaration” is emo, some of it borderline sanctimonious, some of it knowingly silly—like a quote from then-governor Jesse Ventura held up as “sage” wisdom—and all of it is erratic and tonally inconsistent, by design. Number five on the list, however, serves as a more overarching credo of his by now sixty-year output: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”     

In 2017, I released an album of Werner Herzog sound poems called Fugitive Traces (Punctum Books); for one track, I simply collaged the many clips from his director’s commentaries in which he delineates the ecstatic versus accountant’s truth, often pretending to search for the right contradiction-laden word choice before always landing on relatively the same phrase. During the composition process, an audio phenomenon emerged by which the repetitions of “ecstatic truth” appeared to morph the phrase into “static truth”—serendipitous, since that was the point. An example, for Herzog, of the ecstatic truth is how former Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler evinces a compulsion to repeatedly check doorknobs in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Watching the DVD’s special features will reveal that this compulsion was an invention of Herzog’s, an attempt to illustrate the veteran’s fixation on the freedom to come and go. Herzog also took Dengler back to Vietnam to reenact experiences of his two years of internment and torture, including being run through the jungle by soldiers. Speaking about a different scene he concocted in his second crack at Dengler’s life, the 2006 feature Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale, Herzog defended his confabulation: “It’s quintessential Dieter. It’s not that I invent something against the character. I intensify the character. And that’s why I say facts, yes, sometimes. Yes, the accountants will say this is not fully true. And I say, yes, it’s going to be the triumph of the accountants. But here this is the triumph of cinema.” Aside from some strange wording (what’s going to be?), this is one of many moments that has shown him perfectly capable of being able to identify objective truth and fabrication. On the level of genre taxonomy, he even frequently refers to films like Little Dieter as his “so-called documentaries.”

Other artists have noticed that sometimes falsehood and exaggeration feel more real than what happened. In his own novel about a Vietnam War soldier named Tim O’Brien, Vietnam War veteran Tim O’Brien differentiates between the “story-truth” and the “happening-truth.” In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien has a daughter; in real life he does not. Unlike Herzog, he meditates on the difference between the two types of truth in the work itself, rather than in supplementary material. He writes, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” Of the latter: “I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and afraid to look.” Switching to the story-truth, he describes somewhat graphically the body of a murdered young man. For O’Brien, the story-truth is “I killed him.” The delineation of truth here is not always simple, much of it bound up in the ambiguities of language; Tim O’Brien was part of the larger machinery that brought about the deaths of many such young men, whether or not he had hit this described target. Notably, O’Brien’s reasons for such fabrications are different than Herzog’s. He goes on to write, “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.” By which I mean: his fabrications hold him more accountable rather than less.

When the stakes have been even higher, Herzog has found himself less able to set the record straight. Dutch crime writer Maarten ’t Hart, originally trained as a zoologist, was wrangled into being the rat wrangler on Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, and his astonishing essay about the experience, “Rats,” appeared in issue 86 of Granta. Of the 13,000 black market rats that the German filmmakers had smuggled into the Netherlands, ’t Hart approximates that 5,000 were dead of starvation and cannibalization by the time he was begged into service to stabilize the nightmarish conditions. Some of these survivors were boiled alive in an attempt to dye them black. The lucky ones, the approximately 3,500 rats that survived Nosferatu, were abandoned in the streets of Hamburg by Herzog’s crew once filming wrapped. When interviewer Norman Hill asked Herzog about the “trouble” he had with the rats in the director’s commentary of Nosferatu some three decades later, Herzog laughed and said, “We lost not one.”

This theme continues when he defends his record with humans in Rescue Dawn:

In almost sixty films that I shot so far, never, not one single actor got hurt or got seriously ill. Has never happened. Ill, yes. Jason Robards, who was supposed to be Fitzcarraldo in the beginning, got some kind of tropical dysentery . . . Never anyone got injured in any of my films, and I am saying that because there must be something professional about me.

For ten minutes of Herzog himself describing the many injuries sustained by cast and crew on his sets—including an extra who had his finger shot off and another who sustained a concussion from attacks by Klaus Kinski on Aguirre: the Wrath of God—check out a track on Fugitive Traces that I decided to call “Something Professional.” What’s important to understand is that sometimes the ecstasy of truth continues even when Herzog attempts to account for his actions.

In addition to ’t Hart’s “Rats,” I have been teaching excerpts of Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless, his published journals from the set of 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, in nonfiction classes for over a decade. Alongside Herzog’s account, I present the contemporaneous journal entries of filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling from their Fitzcarraldo making-of documentary, The Burden of Dreams. We watch their interview with a Herzog who’s at wit’s end over the film’s myriad setbacks, a deranged and sublime monologue:

Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical [sic] here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there’s a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.

Compare that to Les Blank’s journal entry, “It’s damned weird to have people risking their lives to fulfill a mad Bavarian’s impossible fantasies.”

The degree to which I was using the discrepancies between these texts to illustrate ethical pitfalls of exploring gray areas of nonfiction intensified once Donald Trump descended an escalator and won the Republican nomination in 2016, as immediately I became uneasy about similarities between Herzog and Trump. Primarily, both of them have cultivated contradiction-based aesthetics that act as smoke screens in the face of any attempts at scrutiny. Both men’s reliance upon hyperbole and anthropomorphization to depict themselves as engaged in heroic campaigns against conspiratorial forces inspires a quasi/religious following at odds with available evidence.

Though Herzog does not consider himself religious—as Terry Gross forced him to admit in a 2014 Fresh Air interview for his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams—he often speaks of his filmmaking and fanbase in messianic language. A 2006 article in Harper’s called “The Secret Mainstream,” titled after an oxymoronic phrase Herzog has delighted in having coined to describe his films, ends with the writer Tom Bissell telling Herzog how much he admires his work. Herzog replies, after an uncomfortable pause, “‘There is a dormant brother inside of you, and I awaken him, I make him speak, and you are not alone anymore.’” In his director’s commentary for the 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog praises a “TV man” who stuck with his controversial decision to cast Bruno S. in the lead role, despite him having no experience acting and being two decades older than Kaspar. Herzog and the TV man lost the casting vote 30-2. However:  

I had a moment of insight, and I stood up and I said to everyone assembled, “We have got a ballot now.” Thirty people against Bruno, two for him. But let’s handle it like in reforms of the medieval Catholic church, like the reform of Cluny for example, in France. Some monks, or a majority of monks, were indifferently and cowardly against necessary innovations and reforms of the system. Two monks had the feverish and absolute knowledge that it must be done for the better of the praise of God. And they would declare, they would go aside, declare themselves the melior pas, the better part, and they would win the ballot. And I said “The two of us have won the ballot” . . . I give you his name, Willy Ziegler, ZDF TV, an unobtrusive man who was very, very strong in his convictions, and one of the most loyal I had.

The context is hugely different from a presidential election, of course, but this anecdote shows a mindset able to turn a vote that is lost into a poetic victory through sheer emphasis on loyalty and personal certitude. Likewise, I hardly wish to make a triangle of Onoda, Herzog, and Trump, but it’s telling that Herzog holds up as heroic a man who’s famous for refusing to believe a war has ended, who interpreted every attempt at intercession as proof of a conspiracy. You know, rigged.

The phrase “fake news” jumped into course descriptions of my nonfiction classes. After getting students riled up over Jean-François Lyotard’s claim that no one way of thinking—for example a scientific “metanarrative”—can claim supremacy, or over stunners from Jean Baudrillard like “Watergate is not a scandal” and “The Gulf War did not take place,” I would ask why Trump is sometimes called the “postmodern president.” Maybe I would show them Timothy Yu’s alternate cover of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism featuring Trump’s White House McDonald’s feast. Or compare Baudrillard’s “All hold ups, hijacks, and the like are now as it were simulation hold ups,” with Ann Coulter’s tweet, “Alright, this particular hate crime turned out to be a hoax, but let’s remember, ALL OF THEM are hoaxes. #Smollett.” If the last vestiges of subtlety fail, Rudy Giuliani’s “Truth isn’t truth.”

There are a lot of opinions as to why a large percentage of Americans have come to embrace a lying, anti-democratic, draft-dodging, insurrectionist, spray-tanned adulterer whose values seem to be the opposite of those they would claim to hold. Doubtless many of these opinions have some validity in the mess of the moment. One opinion I haven’t really heard is that many strains of Christianity don’t just excuse but make a virtue of maintaining one’s beliefs not just in the absence of proof but, again, in the face of proof to the contrary. Anselm of Canterbury’s Credo ut intelligam—belief comes before understanding—can so easily become “Belief to spite understanding.” Limiting this to my own experience of teenage Catholicism, being taught to see the absurd as sublimely accurate—the Eucharist actually is Jesus’ body, this acquaintance is going to hell for choosing to be gay, having a shit ton of kids won’t hurt our planet—was unconsciously training me to see a whiny fascist spewing hatred from his golden toilet as the only one standing between the deep state and us blue-collar Christians.

As a member of the New German Cinema filmmakers who were the first to emerge from the country after WWII, Herzog, like Trump, has weathered comparisons to authoritarian dictators, for example in Nina Gladitz’s 1982 documentary Land of Bitterness and Pride. Referencing Gladitz, Eric Rentschler’s essay “The Politics of Vision: Heart of Glass” outlines the aesthetic, political, and narrative similarities between Herzog’s Heart of Glass and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light. Heart of Glass, he writes, “becomes a psychodrama revolving around a creator whose triumph of willful vision increasingly comes at the price of ruthlessness and megalomania.” Such charges have made Herzog a bit defensive. In the director’s commentary of 1970’s Even Dwarves Started Small, a dark comedy cast entirely of little people, he says, “I am not afraid of fascism. I know as long as I am alive it is not gonna occur again in Germany, because I would fight it and die eventually if necessary.” He likewise expressed little initial worry over Donald Trump’s presidency, though not because of any professed abilities to single handedly do anything about it. In a 2017 talk at the Pratt Institute School of Art, he said, “America is still a democracy and no matter whether you like or dislike the current government or president, America has an amazing ability to rejuvenate itself and to learn and move on. It’s a young country and I don’t see what you call fascism. I think it’s too far-fetched.”

As someone whose hatred of Donald Trump followed hard upon his questionable infatuation with Werner Herzog, I have trouble hearing “secret mainstream” and not hearing “silent majority,” have trouble seeing the January 6 mob as anything other than dormant brothers waking up, have trouble hearing a crowd going wild over Kimberly Guilfoyle’s “The best—is yet—to come!” and not hearing “Ecstasy of truth!”, have trouble observing how I continue to watch every film and continue to disseminate Herzog’s literature to the youth of our nation and not imagining a chyron reading HERZOG BASE STICKING WITH HIM. Part of this is just a larger sorry symptom of Trump absorbing everything and becoming the lens through which devotees and detractors view the whole world. This is also, however, what Herzog does on a smaller scale.

Despite The Twilight World being about the type of larger-than-life figure he’s accustomed to depicting and attracting—Dieter Dengler, Klaus Kinski, Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell—it’s Herzog who is all over the book’s prologue. In Tokyo to direct the Shigeaki Saegusa opera Chushingura in 1997, Herzog was told one night by the composer that “the Emperor had indicated he would receive [him] to a private audience.” To his own exaggerated mortification and to the horror of the room, Herzog—instead of immediately accepting the invitation—accidentally turned it down by fretting about conversation topics.

Just then, into the silence, a voice inquired: “Well, if not the Emperor, whom would you like to meet?” I instantly replied: “Onoda.”

. . .

And a week later, I met him.

It is very significant that he starts the novel this way, and his framing of this anecdote is part of a larger tendency on Herzog’s part. It might sound like he’s complimenting Onoda, but the true dynamic is similar to the boomeranging homage that is Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens. He describes in his director’s commentary how the 1979 film was his attempt to establish a “connection and continuity” with pre-war “legitimate German culture,” to reach back to a grandfather of New German Cinema since “the father generation sided with the Nazis or was forced to emigration.” Another of these figures was the film critic Lotte Eisner, who not only was active in the 1920s and not only fled Nazi persecution, but who also mentions Herzog—fresh off his first feature—in the penultimate sentence of the 1969 reissue of her book, The Haunted Cinema, listing his 1968 Lebenszeichen among a handful of new films that she hopes “spell a new departure for the German cinema.” Famously, when Herzog found out Eisner was deathly sick in 1974, he chose to walk the six hundred miles from Munich to Paris because he was convinced the power of his pilgrimage would keep her alive. Herzog’s book Of Walking in Ice positions him as her savior figure in a similar way to how he speaks of Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht in relation to Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, surreally putting Murnau in a position of indebtedness, of needing to be rescued from the Nazis. While framing the The Twilight World’s prologue as a faux pas, Herzog also grants himself the ability to elevate Onoda in importance above the Emperor of Japan. Not only that, but an anonymous voice bids Herzog name a more worthy guest—and Herzog speaks—and it is so. Herzog is making himself into an emperor figure who indicates whom he would and would not deign to receive.

The novel begins with anthropomorphizing of the jungle that seems plucked directly from Conquest of the Useless or his birds-screeching-in-pain interview: “The night coils in fever dreams. No sooner awake than with an awful shudder, the landscape reveals itself as a durable daytime version of the same nightmare. . . . From daybreak the jungle has twitched in the ritual tortures of electricity. Rain . . . The jungle remains stiff, patient, humble, until the office of the rain has been celebrated.” Always with the goddam fever dreams! Beginning with the image of the coil both invokes the Herzog-coined “Kinski Spiral” technique of obliquely entering the frame and sets us up for an involution or entwinement of multiple persons and places and histories. This is Herzog in the jungle of Peru, from Conquest of the Useless, six years after Onoda surrendered:

A still day, sultry. Inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain, fever reigns, insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. Everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.

What seemed spontaneous in the Burden of Dreams interview, it’s revealed, was actually rehearsed. In that interview, Herzog additionally invokes the genre of the novel as comparable to the status of humans in relation to the jungle:

Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle—We in comparison to that enormous articulation— We only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.

The hyperbolic anthropomorphizing of the jungle that fills 2022’s The Twilight World shows that Herzog, like Onoda, has remained in the jungle for a very, very long time.

It is not a stretch to suggest a conflation of creator and character in The Twilight World, as this is a common theme in Herzog’s oeuvre. After Jason Robards caught dysentery, Herzog considered playing Fitzcarraldo himself, since the task of pulling the steamship over the Peruvian mountain and the task of making the film had so vulcanized his ambition with the rubber baron’s. There are always at least two plots in Werner Herzog’s movies: 1) whatever the narrative story is and 2) Herzog’s heroic triumph over the forces arrayed against him. He inserts himself again at the beginning of the novel’s second paragraph—“Then this, as though I’d been there myself”—merging his very sensorium with that of Onoda, and again in the final sentence of the first short chapter: “From afar the pouring of a stream, even though I have yet to see a stream, as though I were, like Onoda, beginning to translate sounds.”

This “translation,” this coming-into-focus, reinforces the work that the book’s prologue is doing to foreground the subjectivity at play. This foregrounding continues into the second chapter via Herzog questioning his own inclusion of a small detail, Onoda’s field glasses: “Are they in fact still field glasses? Weren’t the prisms long ago attacked by a mold? Or is Onoda impossible to imagine without his field glasses?” Such reminders mostly disappear from the middle of the novel, which is wise since too often being shaken from the story in such a manner could have become wearying. What helps avoid the tedium of reading about the tedium of years in the jungle are the novel’s periodic poetic flights about, for example, animal mimicry. Though minutiae about survival techniques in the jungle are sometimes interesting, the way in which they’re flaunted by an author who commonly holds forth on the virtues of knowing how to milk a cow caused me as a reader to feel his hand in the text too much at such moments.

Five pages from the novel’s end, Herzog performs the literary version of a Kinski Spiral, suddenly appearing after a lengthy description of Onoda’s life post-surrender and of his relationship to the Yasukuni Shrine. “The shrine is a somewhat controversial institution because it also houses the names of about a thousand convicted war criminals,” he writes. Then, “At first, I hesitated to follow Onoda’s invitation.” However I feel about the project as a whole, the final pages are a gorgeous, Heraclitian delirium whose exploration of temporal and spatial and generic flux at the very least show Herzog’s merging of his own identity with Onoda’s to be deliberate. And it’s quite skillfully executed. See how in this adaptation of the Achilles and Tortoise Paradox (with a touch of Stephen Dedalus’s ruminations on Sandymount Strand about nach- and nebeneinander), the early parenthetical enacts on a syntactic level what’s being described on the temporal, additionally stretching out what appears to be an affirmation before turning it into a negation:

After all his millions of steps, he had understood that there was—there could be—no such thing as the present. Each step of the way was past, and each further step was future. . . . Every centimeter of his foot going forward was the future, every centimeter behind was the past. And so on, in smaller and smaller scale, in millimeters, in barely measurable fractions of millimeters. We think we live in the present, but there is no such thing.

Why did Herzog’s quote on Late Night with Seth Meyers strike me so powerfully? Let’s not forget that The Twilight World is about finally surrendering. After twenty-nine years, after an unknown number of Filipino soldiers and villagers dead by his hand, and after a visit from a commanding officer in Japan, Hiroo Onoda finally conceded his bit of jungle. Herzog continues to be weird on the subject of Trump, parroting Trump’s talking points in a December 2020 Rolling Stone interview about the neglected people of the Flyover States. In his caveat to Seth Meyers, I hear the contemporary phenomenon of “fake news” and its ties to Trump as finally having lain bare something about mischievous confabulation as a whole. Even before the novel’s prologue, the first thing readers will encounter is a version of this acknowledgement: “Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.” For a guy who doesn’t hesitate to spiral into Hiroo Onoda’s life and make it about himself, it’s notable that Herzog is speaking in third person for the first time in his life, and that here too he can’t bring himself to say the word “ecstatic.”

Part of me is relieved, as this reorientation supports what I’ve been discussing with students about responsibility, about the ethics of fabrication in nonfiction. Some bold, bad shard of me—the teenager who thought his opinions were true merely by dint of his holding them, or the young adult who lived in a barn and shot horror movies—can’t help but feel some level of disappointment. A big reason I became more liberal in my early twenties was that I understood the Democratic Party in the US to be far more interested in examining the full depth of issues; this tendency has also hobbled its popularity, as certain voters, when a politician is asked whether or not they support abortion, or reparations, or green energy, like hearing, simply, “No.” No surprise that “truth” remains a complicated issue—because nonfiction will always be rife with subjectivity, because postmodern thinkers’ war against capital-T Truth has done so much work to dismantle the “common sense” of imperialist governments and religions. It’s very possible to frame this migration as a positive thing, but it’s also all part of one of the most significant and overarching catastrophes that Donald Trump has visited upon America: the twilight of complexity, the relegation of concepts like the ecstatic truth to mere truthiness.

Joe Sacksteder is the author of the story collection Make/Shift (Sarabande) and the novel Driftless Quintet (Schaffner Press). Recent publications include Michigan Quarterly ReviewDIAGRAMSouth Dakota Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review. His experimental horror novel, Hack House, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press in 2024. He teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. 

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