Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

In 1983, as German film director Werner Herzog was preparing to shoot his film about an Aboriginal fight with a mining company (“Where the Green Ants Dream”) he met an English writer who was studying Aboriginal dream tracks or songlines.  A fast friendship of many common interests and beliefs was born.  It may have been cut short by death in 1989, but the relationship has had a lasting impact as twenty years later Herzog charts “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.”

Laura's Review: B

Considering how long I’ve been following Herzog, having seen most of his most famous films back when they were originally released, I’m really surprised I knew nothing about Bruce Chatwin and this close friendship.  Herzog based his last film with Klaus Kinski, “Cobra Verde,” on Chatwin’s book and the writer, who was dying of AIDS at the time, spent a week on set.  Herzog also based his 1991 film, “Scream of Stone,” on his friend.  He was also at the man’s deathbed to show him his 1989 film “Herdsman of the Sun.”  It was the last thing Chatwin saw before falling into a coma.

The film is divided into chapters.  In the first, ‘The Skin of the Brontosaurus,’ we learn about a Victorian cabinet of curiosities that was the young Chatwin’s inspiration and how he coveted his grandmother’s card containing a piece of hairy flesh.  He followed in the ancestor’s footsteps who had sent it to her and wrote the book “In Patagonia” about it.  Herzog follows now and we learn it was really the skin of a giant sloth, that most of the carcass rotted on its sea voyage back to England, but a piece remains in a museum.  Bruce was heartbroken to discover his mother threw out his grandmother’s card.

Although it’s ostensibly organized around chapters, Herzog tends to jump around, the documentary seeming more scattershot as it progresses.  We learn both men love to walk (Herzog wrote a book about his on foot trek from Munich to Paris) and often hiked together.  Both have a fascination for nomadic tribes and think modern man’s city settling and reliance on technology will lead to his demise.  The bulk of the film is given over to Aboriginal songlines, songs which chart ‘maps’ of their homeland.  Herzog visits with Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth who shares their special place at Llanthony Priory in Wales.  She tells us of an extraordinarily handsome man who was the life of the party.  Herzog fills in the man’s need to seduce and asks her about his homosexual affairs.  Elizabeth was unbothered, confident in her place in his life.

In following some of the strands of Chatwin’s life, we actually learn just as much about Herzog.  We hear Chatwin’s written description of him as a bundle of contradictions – remote but warm, austere but sensual, tough but vulnerable.  Chatwin thought Herzog didn’t deal well with ordinary life but conquered extreme situations.  One of Herzog’s anecdotes here bears that out as he tells us how he waited out a sub-zero blizzard on a mountaintop sitting on Chatwin’s rucksack for two and a half days while filming “Scream of Stone.”  That rucksack traveled everywhere with Chatwin and as Herzog offered to carry it for him as he rambled on his deathbed, Elizabeth made sure it ended up with him.

“Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” is one of Herzog’s most personal films.  His affection and respect for his old friend are palpable.

Robin's Review: B-

Werner Herzog had a decades-long friendship with kindred spirit, fellow adventurer and travel author Bruce Chatwin. The filmmaker presents us with a chronicle of the diverse life of the man and his many journeys in “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.”

This latest by Herzog is one of his most personal because of his long relationship with his subject, Chatwin, and it is, at times, almost too personal. I felt that, as a viewer, I was an intruder in the auteur’s space as he expressed his strong feelings about his friend.

Chatwin’s story is divided into eight chapters, with each an aspect of man’s life. They range from his journey to the southernmost tip of South America at Punta Arenas, Herzog meeting Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth, a journey to Central Australia and the aborigine natives, an unfinished book by the travel author, crossing the Beagle Channel in the Straights of Magellan, Chatwin’s rucksack treasured by Herzog, a visit by the author to the set of Herzog’s “Cobra Verde (1987),” and a talk about Chatwin’s sexuality, marriage and mortality.

I have been a fan of Herzog’s for decade, both for his great feature works like “Fitzcarraldo (1982)” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972),” and his many documentaries, like “My Best Fiend (1999)” about Klaus Kinski and “Encounters at the End of the World (2007)” on his journey to Antarctica. His latest does not hit me with the usual intensity of his documentaries but it is still an interesting look into the full and varied life of his friend.