- Germany’s Lost Son, Germany’s Dark Dream: Werner Herzog, Ecstasy, and Einfühlung
I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.—Edgar Allan Poe
In 1837 Georg Büchner, a young genius confronting dark times in Germany, created the character Woyzeck in a fragmentary drama with that name as its title. Woyzeck finds himself betrayed by the woman he loves, as indeed by everyone else, and exclaims “Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund, es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinabsieht.”1 That cry, echoing again as “Every man’s an abyss—you get dizzy looking in” when rendered in English for the filmed version that Werner Herzog made in 1979, could define both the vivid kernel that illuminates all of Herzog’s work and the distance that Herzog maintains from such a state of experience. When in 2011 he released his film Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, many people commented that the phrase “Into the Abyss” could sum up the totality of his work to that point. In an interview with Govindi Murty, Herzog confirmed that he had seen its significance in the same way.2 Yet we also need to acknowledge that the phrase as [End Page 232] spoken by Büchner’s Woyzeck denotes something different from Herzog’s. The camera carries us in close to an abyssal depth, but the man behind the camera is not, as Woyzeck is, subject to vertigo. Herzog certainly feels drawn to these outermost extremes in human experience but in every case maintains a kind of serenity, perhaps sometimes an inhuman kind of serenity, as he contemplates the void that overwhelms Woyzeck.
The position of a filmmaker who so obsessively contemplates himself in this act of abysmal contemplation is both fascinating and foreign to an American perspective. Edgar Allan Poe probably comes closest to representing it in the American tradition, yet Poe has been cast in a most equivocal role among his own countrymen. There he figures too often as the epitome of the wrecked soul, ruined by alcohol and mental infirmity. The quality of his art has constantly been called into question on that basis too. T. S. Eliot described Poe’s sensibility as “pre-adolescent” and lacking in “that which gives dignity to the mature man: a consistent view of life.”3 Herzog shares Poe’s predilection to look into the furthest recesses concealed within any heart of darkness but, by contrast, demonstrates an utterly unshakable view of life.
For this reason, an American sensibility will all too easily perceive an exploration of Herzog’s work as being hagiographic if it represents Herzog’s own view of his place in tradition. The claims to represent “poetic truth” or “ecstatic truth” in the statement presented on his official website certainly cast him in a heroic role.4 When Herzog describes himself as a poet, for example, he clearly attaches himself to a line of cultural inheritance that goes far back into history before the advent of film. The human essence that he implicitly invokes here does not even have an exact name in English, much less an explicit sequence of historical precursors and institutions. In German we know it as Geist. Since this term designates both an individual capacity of spirit or mind and a larger, more general domain, the individual who manifests that capacity experiences her or his role in the unfolding of Geistesgeschichte. Such individuals identify themselves through a place in history understood both as the vicissitudes of Geist in time and as the fulfillment of human existence in time made comprehensible through the universality of Geist. Herzog takes on the function of mediating an inheritance with origins more than two centuries in the past and that includes not only the poets but also the representatives of Bil-dung—the gathering of knowledge in the humane purposes of the Geisteswissenschaften.
Though Herzog has chosen the medium of film, the innovations that he has achieved as a filmmaker are often better understood [End Page 233] as expressions of that older tradition renewed by technological means. Film scholarship naturally tends to emphasize questions raised by a constantly evolving...