Dream’s Fever: On Werner Herzog’s “Of Walking In Ice” (1978) and “The Twilight World” (2022)

A stylized shot of Werner Herzog, filmmaker of "Aguirre: Wrath of God", "Fitzcarraldo", "My Best Fiend", and author of Of "Walking in Ice" (1978) and "The Twilight World" (2022).

Two men are alone. One walks through ice and the other through jungle heat. Despite the presence of others, they are singular in their company, and are compelled by a sense of immense duty that further extricates them from those present.

One man is Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese military officer (in)famous for his continued service to the Empire decades after its formal surrender in World War II, inhabiting his island post in the Philippines with stolid zeal – or, at least, the Onoda conjured up by Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, who in the preface to his novel The Twilight World remarks how he (to the shock of his Japanese hosts) gave up an opportunity to meet the Emperor so that he could meet and speak with Onoda, instead.

The other man is Herzog himself – or, at least, the Herzog of the 70s conjured up out of the private poeticisms scrawled in a diary, later published as Of Walking in Ice, when he stolidly decides to take a one-man winter trek from Munich to Paris to visit his ailing friend and mentor, Lotte Eisner.

Of course, anyone familiar with the work of Herzog ought to take these claims with a grain of salt, as he’s a noted teller of tall tales (but in the vein of Orson Welles, who’d rarely let the truth get in the way of a good story). Since The Twilight World is a novel, Herzog admits to fabricating elements of his story, which mostly takes place in and around Onoda’s lonely defense of his outpost and expired Empire. In Of Walking in Ice, truth plays little part, as the pages are dominated by a flurry of sheer impressions, figures shrouded by impassivity and snow; any strong sense of reality blotted out by Herzog’s solitude.

As an admirer of Werner Herzog’s films, I was curious to see if he was as good a prose stylist as he was a screenwriter (although many of his screenplays are de facto works of prose, in their published formats). After reading both books, I’d say it’s a mixed bag, with interesting insights/turn-of-phrase overwhelmed by Herzogian excess. These are not long books, by any means, so it’s more an excess of atmosphere, of approach. They are mostly successful in absorbing a reader into the singular mindset of their characters, but rarely venture beyond that demesne. The Twilight World is richer, with hard insight on a wider variety of matters, while Of Walking in Ice is peppered with more oddities but rather one-note in its grimness.

Traversing the winter-wracked European landscape, Herzog’s reports are detached, even cruel, as the idea of his beloved Eisner’s death dogs him at every turn. Curiously, Of Walking in Ice reminded me of the early 20th century German poet Georg Trakl, whose verse was subsumed in a similar atmosphere of dread. Here’s a passage from a little past mid-way into the poeticized travelogue:

Outside town I go to eat at a truck stop, and a young couple with something strange and oppressive lurking about them, as in a Western, enters the restaurant. At the next table a man has fallen asleep over his red wine, or is he faking sleep and lurking as well? The little duffel bag I’ve carried most of the time over my left shoulder, and which rests on my hip, has worn a fist-sized hole into the sweater under my jacket. I’ve barely eaten anything all day, just tangerines, some chocolate, water from streams drunk in animal posture. The meal must be ready by now; there will be rabbit and soup. At an airport, a mayor has been beheaded by a helicopter as he was stepping off. A truck driver with lurking eyes, wearing worn-out slippers, pulls out an extremely misshapen Gauloise and smokes it now without straightening it out. Because I’m so lonely, the stout waitress lends me an inquisitive word over the lurking silence of the men. The exposed root of the philodendron in the corner has sought tentative support in the radio loudspeaker there. A small porcelain Indian figure is also standing there, his right hand lifted toward the sun, his left hand supporting the arm that’s pointing up: it’s a stately little statue. In Strasbourg, films by Helvio Soto and Sanjines are showing two or three years late, but showing nevertheless. Someone at a table near the counter is called Kaspar. A word at last, a name!

The landscape is desolate, and despite Herzog’s isolation, a longing for human connection persists:

Trucks drive by in dreary rain. Kirchberg—Hasberg—Loppenhausen, a place that needs no comment. Last, towards the west, a small colony of shacks, all quite provisional, as if gypsies were living there, having settled only half-heartedly. I look further on through the forest. The fir trees sway against each other, crows are rushing against the strong wind, making no headway. Upon long stalks of rye a whole community has been built, on each stalk a house. The houses waver majestically atop their stalks, the entire community swinging and swaying. The hawk sustains itself against the wind above the fir trees, remaining in one spot, then it is borne aloft and changes its course. A roebuck jumped across the road and slipped on the asphalt, as if it were a polished parquet floor. It’s very cold, ahead of me some snow has fallen, still a little left in the flattened grass. A branch has grown through a tree trunk; over this I lost my composure, plus there was the barking of dogs from some dead village. How I long to see someone kneeling before the roadside crosses! Low-flying aeroplanes overhead all day, one coming so close that I think I saw the pilot’s face.

These sorts of observations compose the majority of the book, in entries for each date of Herzog’s three-week journey. Its sketchiness, however, does not completely dissolve a sense of coherence, as Herzog’s puffed-up whinging early on in the trek…

One solitary, overriding thought: get away from here. People frighten me. Our Eisner mustn’t die, she will not die, I won’t permit it. She is not dying now because she isn’t dying. Not now, no, she is not allowed to. My steps are firm. And now the earth trembles. When I move, a buffalo moves. When I rest, a mountain reposes. She wouldn’t dare! She mustn’t. She won’t. When I’m in Paris she will be alive. She must not die. Later, perhaps, when we allow it.

…encapsulates the book’s approach. Herzog’s surrounds conform to his dourness, and all seem like strangers alienated from themselves, in anticipation of some nameless despair – but he forges on, regardless, as if willpower itself will stay Eisner’s demise. The negativity reaches its zenith (nadir?) in the early days of December:

No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. Uncannily, though, in the midst of all this, a fire is blazing, lit, in fact, with petrol. It’s flickering, a ghostly fire, wind. On the orange-colored plain below I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. A train races through the land and penetrates the mountain range. Its wheels are glowing. One car erupts in flames. The train stops, men try to extinguish it, but the car can no longer be extinguished. They decide to move on, to hasten, to race. The train moves, it moves into fathomless space, unwavering. In the pitch-blackness of the universe the wheels are glowing, the lone car is glowing. Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity. This is the situation.

It’s typical Herzog, bordering on grandiloquence, if not entirely there. Its descriptions seem like something out of a Clark Ashton Smith tale, what with all the “stellar catastrophes” and “pitch-blackness of the universe” and so on.

And yet, after all the aches and cold and dark philosophizing, the book ends with a real whimper, as he finally meets Eisner, and taking joy in each other’s presence he muses that “from these last days onward I can fly.” Such a finale – a deflating postscript, not even a page long, wheezing into cliché – does the book no favors, as the entirety is already a rather blinkered, lightweight affair, and could’ve benefitted from a truly touching ending.

Some forty-four years after, Werner Herzog’s The Twilight World fares better, although just solid-good, on the whole. Much of this has to do with the books’ subject matter. Herzog is definitely one of the best and most unique artists alive today, but Hiroo Onoda’s story is simply more intriguing than the man (Herzog) himself trudging through slush muttering about Un-stars and such.

The novel details Onoda’s twenty-nine-year long war of attrition against enemies both real and imagined. It’s told in brief vignettes, from him being ordered by a commanding officer in December 1944 to defend the island of Lubang for as long as it takes the Imperial Army to return in greater numbers until his eventual surrender to Filipino authorities in March 1974. He is accompanied by a few infantrymen who share in his disbelieving obstinance until, picked off by Filipino soldiers (who the Japanese men believe to be Allied forces), only Onoda remains.

The story’s proper beginning finds Herzog in the sort of tropical locale he’s intimately familiar with:

The night coils in fever dreams. No sooner awake than with an awful shudder, the landscape reveals itself as a durable daytime version of the same nightmare, crackling and flickering like loosely connected neon tubes. From daybreak the jungle has twitched in the ritual tortures of electricity. Rain. The storm is so distant that its thunder is not yet audible. A dream? Is it a dream? A wide path, on either side dense underbrush, rotting mulch on the ground, the leaves dripping. The jungle remains stiff, patient, humble, until the office of the rain has been celebrated.

The closing sentence might also serve as a description of Onoda, who takes his officer’s words to heart, disallowing even rationally secure assumptions of Japanese surrender (radio chatter, scattered flyers, explicit pleas from his own countrymen) on the off-chance that it’s some ruse of the Allied enemy to upend his guerilla war. Typos in leaflets distributed to announce Japanese defeat are taken by Onoda to be evidence of Allied tampering.

As their attrition begins to affect their sense of time…

At this point, incidentally, a new phenomenon begins, a sort of constant unobtrusive companionship, a natural dream sibling equipped with all the unquestioning certainty of dreams: a shapeless time of noctambulism, even though things carry on as before, immediate, palpable, ghastly, undeniable in their imperiousness […] Time outside their lives seems to have the quality of a spasm, even though it can’t shake the imperturbable universe. Onoda’s war is of no meaning for the cosmos, for history, for the course of the war. Onoda’s war is formed from the union of an imaginary nothing and a dream, but Onoda’s war, sired by nothing, is nevertheless overwhelming, an event extorted from eternity.

…Onoda even begins to question his own perception of events, of his long war, with its stockpiling of weaponry to be used against an enemy flitting in and out of reality itself:

“Sometimes,” says Onoda, “it feels to me that there is something about these weapons that takes them out of human control. Do they have a life of their own, as soon as they’re devised? And doesn’t war seem to have a life of its own too? Does war dream of war?” And then, after a long time mulling over such thoughts, Onoda says something he rarely says, as though the idea were a piece of metal brought to white heat in the fire: “Is it possible that I am dreaming this war? Could it be that I’m wounded in some hospital and will finally come out of a coma years later, and someone will tell me it was all a dream? Is the jungle, the rain—everything here—a dream? Is Lubang nothing but a fantasy that exists only on old mariners’ charts, along with sea monsters and humans with the heads of dragons and dogs?”

There is even room for some humor, as the small band of quixotic soldiers find a magazine detailing the Vietnam War, and Onoda concludes that the magazine is a fake, as there are far too many advertisements, which is evidence that the enemy has replaced relevant information about Japan’s role in such a war with bogus ads.

Later on, after many failed attempts, including one involving his brother, Onoda is finally convinced to surrender after a young drifter named Norio Suzuki helps disentangle his self-deception. The same major who gave Onoda his orders returns and officially discharges him from his long service to a now dead Empire. The book closes with details of Onoda’s last years, as well as ruminations on the trustworthiness of self-record:

Often he had pondered whether the years in Lubang could have been years of sleepwalking, but if some concrete object that did not appear in his dreams suddenly materialized, then he couldn’t have been in a dream after all. What marks the beginning of something palpable, and where is the memory of it? Why, he often asked himself, couldn’t it be that his endless jungle march was an illusion? After all his millions of steps, he had understood that there was—there could be—no such thing as the present. Each step of the way was past, and each further step was future.

The very end is better, and more poetic, than Of Walking in Ice’s fizzle, with a volley of metaphors that once again recalls something of early-to-mid-century European verse as Onoda’s world remains a vague territory long after his capitulation:

There was no proof that when awake he was awake and no proof that when dreaming he was dreaming. The twilight of the world. Ants, when they stop, for some reason we don’t understand, move their antennae. They have second sight. Crickets scream at the cosmos. Among the terrors of night was a horse with glowing eyes, smoking cigars. A saint left a deep imprint on the rock on which he slept. Elephants at night dream standing up. Fever dreams trundle the rock of night up the angry boiling mountains. The jungle bends and stretches like caterpillars walking, uphill and down. The heron when cornered will attack the eyes of its pursuers. A crocodile ate a countess. The dead, when turned away from the sun, can be buried standing up. Three men on a horse, the saddle remains empty. The net of the sleeping fishermen continues to catch fish. A man who walks backward should also talk backward. Onoda backward is Adono. The heart of a hummingbird beats twenty times a second, twelve hundred times a minute; the silent Indios in the Mato Grosso do Sul believe they are alive twice. It is only among his cattle in the Mato Grosso that Onoda feels secure. His heart beats with their hearts, his breath comes and goes with theirs. When he is with them, he knows he is where he is. The night is over, and the swarms of fish know nothing.

So, more worthwhile than his previous effort, but the book’s brevity, while helpful in cutting back on Herzog’s tendency to overwrite (clichéd modifiers, so much needless reiteration, etc.), simultaneously removes weight from the proceedings. Herzog’s booming phrases strain to provide high seriousness to Onoda’s tale, and the warrior remains a cipher: a tool, a sword meticulously oiled but never swung.

It isn’t difficult to guess why Herzog felt compelled to write these books, as their journeys through obsession, darkness, and the thickets of perception are the sort he’s explored in his cinema for decades, now. However, even in their finished forms, these works of prose seem like mere treatments for future films, stuffed with surreal suggestion and little else beyond that. It’s a shame, but not an extraordinary one – how many artists display greatness in multiple fields? Of the top filmmakers who also ply a trade in prose, only someone like John Sayles comes to mind in terms of uniform success in both mediums.

Again, no incredible shame, but perhaps one would think better of Herzog to understand his own limitations, knowledgeable as he is of human foible and the urge to wrest the world away from reality in appeasement of a want. As things stand, through ice and island shadows, the stubborn mind redoubles its waging, half-convinced these dreams have heft.

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More from Ezekiel Yu: City Wondering: On Mina Loy’s “Ephemerid”, Still Growing: On Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017)Longing’s Transit: On Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6” (2021)

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