“Those who still hug the trees would speak of a universe in harmony. No, it is not. It is chaotic and murderous and not good to be out there. All this thinking of colonizing Mars, for example, is an obscenity. It is a sheer obscenity.” —Werner Herzog

Filmmaker Werner Herzog came to Stanford on May 7, 2019, to discuss his book, Of Walking in Ice. The diaries, published in 1978, describe a three-week journey on foot from Munich to Paris in the winter of 1974. His mission: to visit Lotte Eisner, godmother of New German Cinema, who was on her deathbed. Herzog undertook the three-week journey because, he said, “It was clear to me if I did it, Eisner wouldn’t die.”

The discussion included Entitled Opinion host Robert Harrison and Stanford professor Amir Eshel as panelists, with additional questions from a small invited audience at the Stanford Humanities Center. Herzog’s remarks were characteristically wide-ranging and iconoclastic. Martian colonies? The idea is obscene, he said. The universe is not the harmony of the spheres, he continued, but chaotic and murderous and not good to be out there.

The 20th century saw the demise of political utopias. The communist dream of paradise on earth and fascism’s hopes for a master race that would cover the world brought catastrophes to the human race. The 21st century will see the “bankruptcy of technological utopias,” he predicted. “It is baloney — we’ll see it in this century.”

“My consolation, my anchor,” he said, is the Psalms and the Book of Job. And he reiterated, as he did on a former visit, that it was for his books, not his films, that he will be remembered.

Herzog believed his wild trek in the dead of winter would throw a lifeline to his dying friend and mentor, Lotte Eisner. And it worked. An excerpt from the book:

No, 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.

“This century will show the bankruptcy of technological utopias. We will not colonize Mars. We will not become immortal. It’s baloney. We should rather make sure that our planet, which is the only home we have, stays habitable, instead of making a completely hostile environment, like on Mars, somehow habitable.” —Werner Herzog

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Werner Herzog is a leading figure in New German Cinema, and one of the most important film directors of the past half-century. Since his first film at age 19 in 1961, he has produced, written, and directed nearly 60 documentary and feature films, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. He has also directed dozens of influential documentaries, including Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss, and last year, Meeting Gorbachev. Finally, he is the accomplished writer of books such as Of Walking in Ice and Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on the Making of Fitzcarraldo. A book of interviews was published as Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed.