Last week marked one year since the passing of Roger Ebert. Not simply a film critic, Roger was many things to many people. To me he was first a teacher: watching his show with Gene Siskel was like taking a weekly film class throughout my childhood. As an adult, I was lucky to call him a boss when I worked as a producer for the show in its final season; I even got to be on it, introducing Korean and Chinese cinema to his audience. Finally, he was a friend in ways I wasn’t even fully prepared to embrace when he was here; how do you become “friends” with someone you’ve idolized your whole life? Typically I respected his space and refrained from sending him all the messages I wanted to send him; but now I wonder if this respectful distance was really any better than reaching out. I still carry inside me all these unrealized gestures of friendship: things I wanted to say to him, moments that I wanted to experience with him. The only way now I can realize that friendship is with those present in my life.
Roger Ebert and Werner Herzog were dear friends, so perhaps it’s not coincidental that we celebrate them in the same week. Ebert devotes an entire chapter to Herzog in his memoir Life Itself, and Herzog makes a memorable appearance in the new documentary based on Ebert’s memoir, also titled Life Itself, due out later this year.
[Editor’s note: Fandor has secured exclusive SVOD distribution rights to a collection of Werner Herzog films from Shout! Factory. The films, beginning with Aguirre, the Wrath of God, are being released weekly.]
Ebert’s favorite Herzog film is Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which made Ebert’s final ballot for Sight & Sound magazine’s poll of the greatest films of all time a couple years ago. Curiously, when he first saw the film in 1977, it placed only at number seven among his favorite films seen that year. But five years later, it entered his all time top ten, where it stayed for good. What happened in that time to make the film swell in his esteem?
To understand his love of the film, we have only his words to go on. I’ve taken portions of his review, found at his website RogerEbert.com under the “Great Movies” section, and have edited them with the film to produce this video essay.
Ebert and Herzog were about the same age; in the book Ebert recalls what it was like to first meet Herzog at a New York Film Festival part in 1968:
“I keenly remember how I felt, sitting on the floor next to his chair. Here was a young man unlike any I had ever met. He spoke clearly and directly of unusual ideas. He wasn’t pitching or promoting. It was clear to him what his mission was. It was to film the world through the personalities of exalted eccentrics who defied all ordinary categories and sought a transcendent vision. Every one of his films has followed that same mission. Every one, I believe, is autobiographical—reflecting not the facts of his life, but his spirit. He is in the medieval sense a mystic.”
Later in the chapter Ebert lets on that he may have felt personally closer to Herzog than any other filmmaker he knew.
“With [Herzog] I sense a bond. I’d call it ‘spiritual,’ but the word has confusing undertones. I learn from the way he sees things and I admire how he leads his life. I feel an instinctive sympathy for how he regards the subject of his films. His physical and moral courage inspire me. When I see one of his films, I feel we’re walking through it together.”
I hope this video essay can let us walk through this film with Roger.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.