On Bruce Chatwin Meeting Werner Herzog

Bruce Chatwin

In the introduction of Bruce Chatwin’s book What Am I Doing Here, he warns us with a simple passage:

“The word ‘story’ is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.”

This doesn’t mean that the essays and stories collected in the anthology are all lies, but rather that, perhaps, they’re aiming for what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth.

In an interview with Speigel Online, Herzog says “Facts per se are not so interesting for me. Facts do not illuminate; they create norms. The Manhattan phone directory has 4 million entries which are factually correct, but as a book it doesn’t really illuminate you.”

Although Herzog and Chatwin admired each other’s work,  they were never able to work together until the rights to Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah were put on the market for a “derisively small” sum that Herzog (Chatwin’s first pick for who should film it) bought immediately.

He renamed the story Cobra Verde and called up Chatwin to come to Ghana for filming.

“ ‘Do you want a corpse on your hand?’ ” Chatwin writes when recounting the story in his anthology What Am I Doing Here. Unfortunately, at the time he had “picked up an impossibly rare disease in Western China” that made it hard to climb stairs never mind braving the desert.

The opportunity, like the disease, is rare, so he confirms his presence under the condition that wheelchair and assistant will be provided. Herzog responds:

“ ‘A wheelchair will get you nowhere in terrain where I am shooting. I will give you four hammockeers and a sunshade bearer.’”

Werner Herzog


Declaring that “the fictional process has been at work” might have earned him the ire of other travel writers, but it found itself at home in Herzog’s re-creation of a slave-era settlement.

“Other film directors, faced with the problem of recreating a nineteenth-century African court, would have put it in the hands of the set and costume designers and ended up with a fake. Werner, by hiring a real court and not changing a thing except the odd Taiwanese watch, more than makes up for lack of historical accuracy by establishing an authenticity of tone.”

This “lack of historical accuracy” applied to the casting of the notoriously-difficult-to-work-with Klaus Kinski, “a sexagenarian adolescent all in white with a mane of yellow hair”, as a Brazilian slaver.

After complimenting Bruce on writing the book — which Kinski did enjoy — their exchange whirls into a sort of deadpan humor:

“‘You live in England?’ Kinski asks.

‘Not much.’

‘I don’t even want to change planes in England.’”

Organizing Chaos

Some of the time Klaus Kinski was an asset to organizing the chaos (creating the film’s ending scene ad lib), but other times he actively participated in heightening it.

Chatwin describes how 700 “nice girls from Accra” are brought on set and trained “in machete drill by a lion-faced Italian stunt director.” They are playing the role of The Amazons, but in their spare time they “outraged the villagers by singing songs of fantastic obscenity.”

One night they surround the bungalow where Herzog, Chatwin and the crew are drinking their “umpteenth beer” and  demand another wage increase. The Portuguese doctor born in Madagascar cries out “I know how serious this shit is” but Kinski yells “‘I’m for the girls!'”

With his “old-fashioned Germanic courtliness”, Herzog is able to maintain focus, strike a deal and temporarily organizes the bubbling chaos just long enough to film the scenes necessary.

Chatwin would like to stick around but his plane leaves for London, the capital of that country Kinski is wary of even changing planes in. “Besides” Chatwin writes:

“I am needed to relay messages to Munich: on the logistics of getting the crew plus a ton of equipment from Tamala to Bogota via Madrid.”