‘Nomad’ review: Werner Herzog pays tribute to a ‘kindred spirit’
By Glenn Kenny
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Hamlet says to his friend in the Shakespeare tragedy. Remove the air of derision from the character’s remark, and you have a possible summation of the perspective held by filmmaker Werner Herzog and writer and explorer Bruce Chatwin, who were friends and sometimes collaborators.
Both artists shared a dogged interest in the people, sights and objects that can be found only in the farthest corners of the world — and in what those people, sights and objects have to show us about what all members of the human race have in common. They generously delighted in presenting to their audiences earthly wonders that most of us never dreamed of.
“Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” is Herzog’s long-gestating interrogation into the work of Chatwin, who died in 1989. It’s also a tribute to a clearly much-missed friend. The movie begins with an item that fascinated Chatwin as a child — something its owners, his grandparents, said was “the skin of a Brontosaurus.” It spurred a trip to Patagonia that resulted in Chatwin’s first book, the groundbreaking 1977 bestseller “In Patagonia.”
Herzog travels there for the film and finds, startlingly, a shipwreck photographed for the book more than 40 years ago; it’s almost unchanged. He also goes to the cave where the skin — actually that of a giant sloth — was first found. Chatwin’s book made the cave a tourist attraction.
Other sites that Herzog visits, all meaningful to Chatwin, seem poised, eerily and enticingly, between the known and unknown worlds. Silbury Hill — a mound that is perhaps mystically (or just magnetically) charged — near Stonehenge is believed to be the world’s largest Neolithic structure. Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America, leads to Antarctica. Herzog shoots these sites with the will and skill of a spell caster. No filmmaker uses drone camerawork so lyrically; his flying eye dips and swoops with a piercing curiosity.
Touching down in Australia, where Chatwin set his magnum opus, 1987’s “The Songlines,” Herzog finds another shipwreck: a rusted prop fighter from one of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels. Herzog (who worked as an actor in the “Star Wars” television series “The Mandalorian”) presents this not with sarcasm but with equanimity: We, as a species, are always adding to the world.
This section, “Songs and Songlines,” is the knottiest of the movie, as contemporary aboriginal elders discuss the centrality of dreams to their culture. Herzog also touches on how aboriginal thought became intertwined with colonial Lutheran piety.
With these observations, the movie becomes more than peripatetic cinematic comfort food. Herzog doesn’t sidestep the idea of cultural appropriation, although he never introduces it as such. Rather, he implicitly argues that Chatwin was in the business of making connections of which we ought to always be mindful — a business Herzog himself is in.
A section of the film titled “The Nomadic Alternative” suggests a way of living in which walking is the cure for all ills. An unrooted life is a hedge, at the very least, against bourgeois complacency. As the movie’s reach extends, Herzog limns an arc that stretches from Antarctica to Siberia and beyond, implying that, in a sense, we all came from the same unfixed place.
Intertwined with this is a personal and loving portrait of Chatwin, who died of an HIV-related illness before he was 50. Herzog is a stalwart defender; addressing observations from critics that the writer’s work was often not strict in its adherence to facts, Herzog insists that what Chatwin gave the reader was “truth and a half.” To elaborate as Chatwin did, Herzog implies, is a legitimate response to places that can’t help but exert a strong pull on the imagination.
And of course, the truth-and-a-half principle figures heavily in Herzog’s own art — of which this film is a particularly outstanding example.