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Book review: Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A memoir by Werner Herzog

22 December 2023

Werner Herzog’s story begins in the ruins of war, says Susan Gray

RAISED in an atheist household, the filmmaker Werner Herzog converted to the “Bavarian” religion of Roman Catholicism as a teenager. “My brothers and I had grown up irreligious, as heathens. . . Later, in Munich, when I was thirteen, I started to feel a kind of emptiness. There was a yearning for a transcendence, sublimity, that left me restless. . . When I was fourteen, I got myself baptised and confirmed the same day. I was a Catholic of my own will.”

Werner’s adolescent faith included inclination towards the Arian heresy, distinguishing between the substance God and Christ, and favouring Pelagius’s interpretation of free will over Augustine’s innate original sin.

In the remote Alpine village of Sachrang, the director felt the presence of God when he and his brother Till planned a trip-wire, on St Nicholas’s Day, for Krampus, “who in Austria and Southern Germany was a kind of rustic demon in fur and horns rattling about to terrorise naughty children with a heavy chain”. But, on the actual day, four-year-old Herzog thought better of it, hiding behind the sofa when he heard hoofs on the landing. “The next thing I felt was Krampus grabbing me by the seat of my pants and pulling me out. . . But then I saw God, who smiled at me.”

Born in 1942, Herzog jumps, in his memoir, between the poverty of post-war Germany, where neighbours boiled wallpaper torn from bombsites for the paste’s nutrients, and young Herzog’s disappointment at missing a workmen’s crow-stew lunch, to the later glamour of awards ceremonies and film festivals. His mainly absent father, Dietrich, and Croatian mother, Elisabeth, were Nazi sympathisers, put in the context of the nationalism sweeping Europe after the First World War. Herzog’s brothers Till and Lucki created successful international companies.

AlamyWerner Herzog directing the 2006 film Rescue Dawn on location in Thailand

Family members, three wives, and three children, including a daughter, Hanna-Marie, from an affair with the actress Eva Mattes, have to fight to hold their own in a narrative brimming with larger-than-life characters such as Klaus Kinski and Bruce Chatwin. During their five films, Herzog fantasised about murdering “the madman” Kinski; and he found Chatwin’s relentless storytelling overwhelming.

The tumult of anecdote and outlandish figures, caught on the edge of a volcanoes, snowed in on the Andes, and pulling a steamship across a mountain to make the film Fitzcarraldo, can border on too intense. But Herzog’s artful, meandering epic, with its concentrations of distance, time, and physical strength, and singular vision, always rebalances.


Susan Gray writes about the arts and entertainment for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and the Daily Mail.


Every Man for Himself and God Against All: A memoir
Werner Herzog
Michael Hofmann, translator
Vintage £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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