Throughout his career, Werner Herzog has shared a deep connection with his daring explorer subjects, be it with “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” or “Grizzly Man.” That’s again true with “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin,” the prolific filmmaker’s heartfelt documentary tribute to his celebrated writer friend, who passed away from AIDS in 1989. Duplicating many of Chatwin’s most notable journeys, Herzog evokes the late English wanderer’s restless soul and curious fascination with profound issues that have long captivated the director. Following its Tribeca Film Festival world premiere, this sincere homage should entice adventurous viewers when it premieres on BBC Two later this year.
Channeling Chatwin, whom he rightfully dubs a “kindred spirit,” Herzog embarks on a “similar erratic quest” for the “nature of human existence” in “Nomad.” He begins with a trip to the Patagonia cave where Chatwin’s ancestor discovered the skin and bone of a 10,000-year-old giant sloth, which the writer wrote about in 1977’s “In Patagonia” (believing it to be from a brontosaurus). It was the childhood spark that lit Chatwin’s lifelong flame for investigating the world’s mysteries, catapulting him on treks to diverse locales, including the Australian Outback to investigate aborigines’ “songlines” (i.e. songs about navigation, memory and folklore), and to the Black Mountains of Wales, where Llanthony Priory served as his and wife Elizabeth’s peaceful sanctuary.
Chatwin’s itinerant disposition led him to study nomads, and Herzog ably conjures the man’s attraction to the intersection of nature, history, dreams, and myth — a mutual interest that bonded the two men. Herzog divides “Nomad” into chapters often based on Chatwin’s books, and in interviews with the likes of biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, he discusses his friendship with Chatwin, who was particularly drawn to Herzog’s “Signs of Life” (1968) and “Herdsmen of the Sun” (1989). Herzog, in turn, was creatively inspired by Chatwin — his 1987 film “Cobra Verde” is based on the author’s 1980 novel “The Viceroy of Ouidah” (Chatwin visited the production for weeks), and his 1991 drama “Scream of Stone” features a protagonist modeled after his friend. More crucially still, Herzog undoubtedly felt an affinity for Chatwin’s prose style, in which facts were embellished in order to get at what the director has, in prior works, referred to as an “ecstatic truth.”
The free-flowing “Nomad” weaves together on-camera conversations, old photos, archival audio clips of Chatwin, and new non-fiction footage of Herzog’s travels — all of it narrated by the director with his typical philosophical import. That aesthetic mix is in tune with Chatwin and Herzog’s multifaceted search for “secret knowledge,” such as that contained in T.G.H. Strehlow’s “Songs of Central Australia,” a 1971 tome that influenced Chatwin and which a museum curator admits is not fit for outsider’s eyes. Herzog moves between topics and modes with confidence, along the way amusingly claiming about Chatwin — whose writing sought to draw links between books, people, landscapes, and legends — “He was the Internet.”
“Nomad” marries its maker’s commentary to tableaux — of icy Patagonian lakes and tree-lined Australian paths — that convey a sense of profound beauty and primordial mystery, the latter enhanced by Ernst Reijseger’s score of tribal chants and orchestral arrangements. Even though Chatwin is only seen in a handful of snapshots and one brief video snippet, Herzog brings him to vivid life. At the same time, he captures the essential building blocks of their union, which lasted even after Chatwin’s passing, as evidenced by Herzog using the writer’s trusty rucksack (gifted to him on the man’s deathbed) as a seat cushion during a 55-hour ordeal trapped in a blizzard on Cerro Torre — an example of literal and figurative artistic support that, for the director, clearly continues to this day.