Nomad: In The Footsteps Of Bruce Chatwin

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Nomad: In The Footsteps Of Bruce Chatwin
"Everything comes to life under Herzog's gaze, but rarely has he revealed so much of himself directly." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

In the middle of delivering an anecdote about how he and Bruce Chatwin once got caught in a mountain storm with no equipment and had to survive by lying in holes in the ice for two days, Werner Herzog stops, blushes slightly and says "I'm not the protagonist here." It's as if he's just become aware of something that the rest of us have seen in his work for decades.

All the great observers of human nature begin with the self, simply because it's easiest to access. Though this is probably Herzog's most personal film, the frequency with which he includes clips of others he has made in the past acts as a reminder that these are all stops along the same route. Bruce Chatwin - traveller, storyteller, adventurer - was a friend of his and also a man with whom he seems to have been linked through their serendipitous attraction to the same types of landscape, relic and mystery, leading them to make some of the same discoveries independently. He doesn't set out to tell Chatwin's story here but, rather, to undertake a series of similar quests, a process which obliquely brings them closer together. Often one can discover more about a person from their passions than from mere biographical details. Herzog reveals Chaplin rather as he has revealed himself over all these years. It's a truly beautiful eulogy.

We begin with the memory of a piece of animal skin, once a family treasure, lost before Chatwin could obtain it for himself and only found again much later. This, it was claimed, was once part of a brontosaurus, though its thick hair provides the astute viewer with an early clue to the contrary. Visiting the cave where it was found, Herzog encounters a parade of tourists inspired by Chatwin's books. They pose beside a statue of a bear outside the entrance. The cave is home to myriad stories - indeed, as Herzon has observed before, humanity's oldest stories (and oldest forms of cinema) stem from caves. It is a fitting place from which to move outwards, encountering numerous strange landscapes, learning the stories of cultures now entirely lost, discovering tales that transcend death and tales that are cut off by it.

Chatwin was fascinated by the indigenous peoples of Australia and their use of stories - or songs - to map their way across a vast continent. There's a book here full of wisdom that was never meant to pass into white men's hands, which Herzog photographs in a respectful blur but not without revealing its title. There's an acknowledgement that some stories are private. The question of whether or not information should be restricted is left open. Elsewhere the film dwells on the ancient lore of England and Wales, the camera observing that particular forms of magic captured by slanting light in the branches of trees.

Everything comes to life under Herzog's gaze, but rarely has he revealed so much of himself directly. Speaking of Chatwin's The Viceroy Of Ouidah, which he filmed as Cobra Verde, he explains that he had to have it because otherwise it would have been filmed by David Bowie, a possibility that he clearly considers unbearable. He talks about keeping a bit of distance from Chatwin in a way that suggests a fear of being overwhelmed by someone else's story, by the magnetism of a man whose passion for the world around him almost equalled his own.

Now 78, Herzog continues to approach the world with a childlike wonder whose contrast with his erudition sometimes makes him seem absurd. This film holds up a mirror to Chapman's adventures and throws light upon his own in the process; and it's in that dance of light upon the screen that the magic happens.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2020
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Nomad: In The Footsteps Of Bruce Chatwin packshot
When writer Bruce Chatwin was dying of AIDS, his friend Werner Herzog made a final visit. As a parting gift, Chatwin gave Herzog his rucksack. Thirty years later, Herzog sets out on his own journey, inspired by Chatwin’s passion for the nomadic life.

Director: Werner Herzog

Year: 2019

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: UK


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