It seems inevitable that the English travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin would be friends with Werner Herzog. Chatwin once described Herzog as “the one person I could discuss the sacramental aspect of walking” with. They were such kindred spirits that he bequeathed his backpack to Herzog — his backpack being as important to Chatwin the writer as pen and paper were.
Chatwin, who died in 1989, was a fantastical creature: boyishly handsome, endlessly restless, a connoisseur of oddity, as likely to turn up in Patagonia or the Australian Outback as Paris or London. A gifted writer, he had an enormous (and deserved) vogue in the ’80s. As for Herzog, he is the most vigorously, even crazily, exotic of filmmakers: not so much endless in his restlessness as demonic.
It’s fitting that Herzog made a movie, “Cobra Verde” (1987), from a Chatwin novel, “The Viceroy of Ouidah.” It’s even more fitting that he’s now made a documentary tribute to his friend, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.” One of the more striking moments in a film that has several comes when a Chatwin biographer shows Herzog his friend’s annotated copy of the “Cobra Verde” script. Herzog had never seen it.
In the film, he says of Chatwin, “I had a similar worldview.” Herzog says a lot in “Nomad,” both on camera and in voiceover. As interesting as he is, a problem with the documentary is an inevitable imbalance between filmmaker, very much with us (Herzog turns 78 next week), and long-deceased subject.
Their worldviews were similar enough to overlap but not so similar as to be congruent. For Chatwin, nature was of little interest without a human presence. That presence could take extenuated or unusual form (he was drawn to eccentrics the way Hemingway was to bullfighters), and the more extenuated or unusual the better. But it was people who mattered to him. For Herzog, people are interesting, but interesting in the way severe weather is. Nature would be better off without people, and Herzog is more sympathetic than not to such a view. Where the two men met was in their shared appreciation for the idiosyncratic and extreme (and love of walking, of course). But each then went in a different direction from that middle ground.
Herzog is less interested in Chatwin himself than his ideas and the places he visited. It’s strange that so vivid a personality would be largely missing from a movie about him. We see a few photographs, hear him read a few passages from his first book, “In Patagonia,” learn a few biographical details. There are interviews with Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, a few friends, and Nicholas Shakespeare, the biographer. Shakespeare nicely addresses Chatwin’s penchant for fabrication: “He didn’t tell half -truths. He told truths and a half.”
Herzog has organized the film in chapters, as if it were a book. That makes sense, since it’s a film about an author. It makes sense for another reason. Herzog is himself a very capable writer. His remarkable 1978 book, “Of Walking in Ice,” was the initial bond between him and Chatwin. “Nomad” has several indelible moments: seeing the backpack and annotated script, Herzog’s account of visiting Chatwin just before his death. But overall the film is static and more wayward than not. Affection and admiration, an excellent combination in life, has limited utility in art. Would an extended essay rather than documentary have better served Herzog — and, writer that he was, Chatwin?
NOMAD: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF BRUCE CHATWIN
Written and directed by Werner Herzog. At Kendall Square. 89 minutes. Unrated.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.