Walking and magic: Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice

There are many examples of walking as a spiritual practise, but relatively few of walking as a magical act. One example comes from the film director Werner Herzog, whose text, Of Walking in Ice, is a remarkable little book. I first heard of it from Warren Ellis.

“it’s the story of Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend — on the magical belief that if he walked there, the friend would not die. That’s six hundred miles. It’s kind of heartbreaking, in its way. And it’s the dead of winter, so Herzog is walking face-first into horizontal snowstorms for a lot of it. But it’s also very beautiful”

Herzog travelled through the bitterness of winter, in November and December 1974, because he felt German cinema could not manage without the critic Lotte Eisner.  Ellis describes it as “weirdly life-affirming, even as he treads through the dead world towards a deathbed”. Herzog is ill-prepared, and forced to break into holiday homes for shelter. Strange little narratives intrude upon the text, sometimes dreams, sometimes flights of fancy. The trudge of hiking is summoned almost as well as it is in the walking classic, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

There are issues with the book. Some people will consider Herzog as cheating when he accepts lifts – but then the rules of walking are very much set by oneself. There’s also a slightly strange manner in which Eisner’s sickness becomes a reason for Herzog’s quest, while not informing it very much. Her illness turns into his story, something that he has power over.

My edition of the book was missing what I consider the ending of the story. Herzog reached Eisner, and she survived her illness, going on to live until 1983. I can’t find a reference for it, but the story I was heard was that Eisner grew tired of life and asked to be released from the magic. Apparently, some editions include the valedictory speech where Herzog performed this mercy: “Lotte Eisner, we want you with us even when you are a hundred years old, but I herewith release you from this terrible incantation. You are now allowed to die. I say that without any frivolity, with deep respect for death, which is the only thing we can be sure of.

As Geoff Nicholson points out in The Lost Art of Walking, “Walking in order to keep somebody alive, may be eccentric in the extreme, but if it works, then maybe there’s nothing eccentric about it whatsoever

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