It’s possible that to the uninitiated, Werner Herzog may be a bit of an enigma. Is he a documentarian? An actor? A screenwriter? A historian? Something else entirely? The fact is, he’s all of the above; your kids have seen him as a brooding outsider in the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian” and your grandparents know him from his prolific filmmaking in the ’70s and 80s. Today, his recent work reflects that enviable point in one’s career when the art is as much what one wants to make as it is what one recognizes to be a story worth telling. The two sentiments are beautifully combined in Herzog’s deeply personal and touching new documentary Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.
Herzog and travel writer Bruce Chatwin were close friends until the latter’s untimely passing in 1989. The filmmaker adapted Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah into 1987’s Cobra Verde, and the two were often on set together in some of the most brutal and challenging conditions Mother Nature could serve up. In Nomad, the filmmaker uses Chatwin’s own photos and writings to retrace his friend’s adventures at the ends of the Earth (literally) and recounts how his life as an adventurer influences Herzog’s filmmaking even today. Herzog narrates the film extensively (in that distinctive, accented delivery), and it’s quickly apparent that this is a film about something very dear to the filmmaker’s heart, an homage to a man who remains very much a part of the lives of those he touched.
Beginning with a pelt of “brontosaurus skin” Chatwin was fascinated with as a child, Herzog journeys to Patagonia, in the southern tip of South America, to visit the caves where a young Bruce played and would eventually set his first book, In Patagonia. He heads to England to discover Silbury Hill, apparently the world’s largest neolithic structure and one that, according to the film, grounded Chatwin and infused him with an ethereal energy. And he goes all the way to Australia to speak with the indigenous peoples keeping the tradition of “songlines” alive in the outback, a secretive tradition that Chatwin explored firsthand. It’s all stunningly visualized with sweeping drone footage, offering sumptuous perspectives on far-flung worlds that seem even further away as we’re all homebound these days.
Throughout his travels for the film, Herzog also connects with others who knew Chatwin well, including his widow Elizabeth and his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare. The affection both hold for the departed Chatwin is evident, from Elizabeth’s wistful recollection of his laughter to Shakespeare’s nearly gleeful exploration of Chatwin’s notebooks and sketches. As Herzog recounts the story of one very meaningful leather rucksack, from Chatwin’s use of it through to featuring it in one of his films, it’s difficult not to think of those artifacts from our own lives that both hold meaning with our own dearly departed and those we may pass on as remnants of our time here. Chatwin’s personal life is touched on only briefly, as Herzog and Elizabeth recall his beauty and charm and their collective effect on both women and men; his death at just 48 years old was a result of contracting the then-terminal HIV virus.
Werner Herzog has been making films for over fifty years, so it’s no surprise that he can skillfully and beautifully piece together a captivating story that spans continents and decades. That he chose this moment in his career to make a film so personally rooted in his own experiences and relationships is to our great benefit; Nomad is not simply a paint-by-numbers biography of a man who lived a grand, if short, life. It is a reflection on that life, on the ones that kept being lived, and on the lives to come that will discover our stories, too.
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin screens at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In on Tuesday, August 25, presented by Music Box Films and Elevated Films. Get tickets here. The film arrives at Music Box Theatre and virtual cinemas on Friday, August 28.