I'm a huge fan of Werner Herzog's films, so when his retrospective was screened at Paris' Centre Pompidou (National Museum of Contemporary Art) last year, I was pleased to find Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris in the museum's excellent bookshop. The travelogue has been reprinted (this is true for French editions, I'm not sure about English language copies of the book), and reveals that the film director is not only gifted for capturing his observations on film, but on paper as well.
In November of 1974 while at home in Munich, Werner Herzog receives a telephone call reporting that his dear friend Lotte Eisner (1896-1983), a renown German film historian and critic (holocaust survivor, archivist for La Cinémathèque Française, her life alone is worth its own book!) is terminally ill in Paris. Distraught with the news and insistent that she must recover, Herzog decides that if he can reach her on foot, all will be well again and his friend will survive. With little more than a new pair of boots, Herzog sets off immediately on foot through the German countryside and into France, a trip that takes him three weeks to complete, spanning 500 miles (but, after all, this is the man who once had a 320 ton steamer dragged by hand over a mountain in the Amazon during the filming of Fitzcarraldo). Along the way, his journals recount striking details of the snow-covered landscape, the author's struggle with cold and everyday survival (remember when there were no cell phones or internet for checking in and trip planning?), as well as recollections of his films, personal history and solitude. The vivid pictures Herzog's writing creates make the intense emotions he must have been experiencing at the time, quite tangible. The same themes found in his films of man fighting against the chaos and overwhelming power of nature are felt in this frost-ridden story of stubborn insistence and spiritual determination. It's as if Herzog believes surviving the early winter blizzards of 1974 will distract death and send it elsewhere, away from the sick bed of his dear friend.
In truth, Of Walking in Ice may be a bit slow for readers unfamiliar with Herzog's filmography. The book is best suited for film aficionados or travelers particularly interested in walking trips (the el Camino anyone?) and/or the solo traveling experience. Fans of Herzog will not be disappointed, though, as they will undoubtedly recognize much of the director's filmmaking process in both the style of the writing and, more importantly, the catalyst for Of Walking on Ice and its resulting experiences.