Director: Werner Herzog
Words – Christian Abbott
For half a century now, Werner Herzog has been captivating audiences with his unique, humorous and acerbic perspective. He, like so few other filmmakers, draws you into the worlds he creates, the stories he shares and the lands he explores with a masterful eye and solemn tone. Now, he returns looking at another individual that once had a similar pull.
Three decades after the death of writer/adventurer Bruce Chatwin, Werner Herzog dives deep into his enigmatic life, from the times their paths crossed, to his lasting legacy. This is a tale of shared curiosity and the relentless search for meaning.
Bruce Chatwin was a passionate seeker of knowledge, from travelling the globe to meeting and researching ancient tribespeople and cultures. The overlaps with Herzog are obvious.
Yet, this is a journey that goes deeper and more personal than that, Herzog; in a career that is ever expanding, knew Chatwin in the twilight years of his life. Through many encounters, the two realised they were driven by familiar questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
As Herzog states himself “Bruce has used his career as a writer to explore this, I have done the same as a filmmaker”. These are questions that permeate this film.
Often when it comes to Herzog’s canon, it is he himself that draws our attention as much as it is his eclectic subjects. Herzog here is now examining a man that has a true personal connection with him and a lasting legacy. Like Chatwin’s literature which inspired it, Herzog has broken this down into eight masterful chapters and, piece by piece, he assembles a narrative that is humanistic and heart-breaking.
The physical absence of Chatwin is felt throughout, from pictures to footage to voice, there is an everlasting longing for this presence, from the friends and family he has left behind to the very film itself. The use of excerpts and interviews with historians, family and the people he inspired both heighten and examine this. Expertly, Herzog has captured his feeling. His own personal longing for his friend is painful and it shows.
It doesn’t linger or dwell though, there is so much to unpack and in eighty-nine minutes there is a lot to see and explore. This journey isn’t just between these two great men, but a global one from pre-history to our modern world. A familiar comedic tone uplifts and helps celebrate Chatwin’s life, because it is worth celebrating and enjoying as he did for forty-nine years.
As the years roll forward, we lose the connection we once had. Chatwin was deeply concerned that the once great aboriginal and native cultures of the world were disappearing fast. He used his time on Earth to try and help preserve them and if he couldn’t, document them so that we could remember. Herzog here has given Chatwin, his friend, the most beautiful gift to continue his legacy and ensure we never forget Bruce Chatwin.
Werner Herzog’s latest film will be an Arena, the iconic BBC Arts documentary strand.
Arena: in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin will broadcast in the autumn on BBC Two.
BBC Arts Arena