Werner Herzog prefers to live in a forest. It assisted as the backdrop for his two most well-known films, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The subjects of Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Wings of Hope, two of his most well-known documentaries, astonishingly triumph over this unbeatable adversary. Man can test his mettle and so gain a better understanding of himself where he encounters nature at its most extravagantly cruel. Herzog claims in Burden of Dreams, a documentary on the catastrophic Fitzcarraldo filming, that the jungle is “full of obscenity.” “The trees around here are miserable. The birds are suffering. They seem to howl in pain rather than singing, in my opinion. It’s not that I despise it, he clarifies afterwards.
In his debut book, The Twilight World, Herzog returns to the forest. The struggles of Japanese Imperial Army veteran Hiroo Onoda, who was marooned on a remote island in the Philippines at the end of World War II and continued to fight for an additional 29 years without being aware that his nation had capitulated, serve as the basis for the story. Onoda is propelled to extremes by an intoxicating mix of passion and delusion, similar to Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man and other irrational characters in the Herzog canon. He blends so seamlessly into the Werner Herzog Cinematic Universe that it is unclear why the filmmaker decided to convey his story through a novel, which frequently has the same read-alike as a voice-over in a Herzog movie. The following sentences are difficult to say aloud without falling into the German’s melancholy cadence: “The jungle does not recognise time. They resemble two estranged brothers who refuse to interact and who, when they do, only express contempt when speaking to one another.
The Twilight World turns out to be another venue for Herzog to delve into the issues that have characterised a body of work that dates back to the late 1960s: man against nature, the tenuous line separating dreams and reality, and the never-ending search for meaning in a meaningless world. The fact that it’s a novel doesn’t set it apart from his earlier work, which included performers performing the impossible tasks that his irrational characters were trying to accomplish while speaking in extended, scripted paragraphs.
Herzog’s propensity to blur the line between truth and fiction is summed up in the book’s epigraph: “Most details are factually correct; some are not. The author was more concerned with the quality other than authenticity, one he felt he had a glimpse of when he met the story’s protagonist.
Onoda himself is what distinguishes The Twilight World, as his irrational efforts originated from the extremely particular historical setting of Japanese militarism. Onoda was not a visionary architect who desired to construct an opera theatre in the Amazon. He also wasn’t a cute oddball who thought he had a special bond with Alaska’s brown bears. He was one of the many millions of Japanese citizens who enthusiastically joined the war while being indoctrinated into a religion of emperor worship. Herzog’s lack of understanding of this distinction and his perception of Onoda as merely one among several Sisyphean characters engaged in personal conflicts with the endless forest. demonstrates the shortcomings of both his debut novel and his other works.
One of Herzog’s favourite farming methods
There are foes everywhere, but none more ruthless than the jungle itself, which is hell-bent on destroying all they need and possess. Their clothing, weaponry, and food supplies are all deteriorating at an alarming rate as if the jungle’s very breath was toxic. Onoda learns how to produce coconut oil to preserve his guns, ammo, and samurai sword, a valuable family artefact that keeps him connected, however tenuously, to his prior existence. “This is like a green inferno,” one of Onoda’s companion’s remarks. “No, it’s just a tropics forest,” he says.
His colleagues are eventually captured or killed in fights with Filipi
no forces. Onoda goes unnoticed, fading into myth—”an impalpable dream figure, an elusive and lethal mist, a rumour, a story,” Herzog says. When he is finally apprehended, he declares that he will surrender only if his superior officer instructs him to do so. The officer, who is now elderly, is brought to Lubang Island and relieves Onoda of his responsibilities. His war is finally finished, yet he remains unmoved. “Lieutenant, are you all ok?” the officer inquires. “Sir, there is a tempest roaring within me,” Onoda says. It is only at the end of Herzog’s small work that this character has any interiority at all. Herzog’s sight, like that of a camera, can only capture superficial details.
Herzog is a well-known nihilist. “I presume the universe’s common factor is disorder, wrath, and death,” he reflects in Grizzly Man. But he is also a hopeless romantic who sees enormous nobility in man’s endeavour to make sense of the despair that surrounds him. The more absurd the undertaking, the more affecting it is. “I’m going to move a mountain,” Fitzcarraldo says, wild-eyed and wild-haired, as geniuses and maniacs can be. In the last moment of Aguirre, in which the camera whirls around Klaus Kinski as he slides down an Amazon River tributary on a raft, his character’s aspirations of discovering El Dorado crushed, is one of Herzog’s most poignant images. His entire life is revealed to be a fantasy, with the world serving as a stage for it to play out.
There’s a romantic quality to Herzog’s jungle survival stories, where the world boils down to people struggling with nature and being moulded by it. Wings of Hope is based on the true story of Juliane Koepcke, who survived a plane crash in the Amazon as well as an 11-day trek through the rainforest before finding rescue. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the story of Dengler’s escape from a POW camp in Laos during the Vietnam War, where the surrounding forest proves considerably more dangerous than the camp itself. As Dengler narrates the never-ending rain, his poor, torn feet, and the leeches that attach themselves to his body every night while he sleeps, it becomes evident, with the force of revelation, that his resolve to prevail is unusual—that human beings are unique. This is why Herzog like the jungle: it can show us at our most pitiful and inspiring.
Herzog’s view that meaning emerges from meaningless pain leads him to some intriguing metaphysical territory. Reality (that domain of blind, groping devastation) is no more real to Herzog than our imagination (the realm of beauty and order superimposed on the world). “Everyday existence is merely an illusion, hiding the reality of dreams,” a character in Fitzcarraldo states. In Burden of Dreams, Herzog expands the subjectivity of dream life to a universal phenomenon: “It’s not just my dreams. All of these dreams, I believe, are also yours. The only difference between you and me is that I can verbalise them.
Unfortunately, in the case of Hiroo Onoda, this really elegant concept falls apart. The Twilight World is described as a “modern-day Robinson Crusoe narrative” by Herzog’s American publisher, a comparison that, although completely incorrect, is instructive. Robinson Crusoe begins with the protagonist receiving a sign from God—a ferocious storm destroying his ship—that he should respect his family’s wishes and avoid a life on the high seas. He sets off nevertheless, and his punishment is to end up exiled to a desolate island with a swarm of cannibals. Crusoe’s failure to obey God’s commands throws him into difficulty, but it also makes him sympathetic. After all, it is human to make mistakes.
The Twilight World also actually begins with its narrator receiving a sign from God—or, rather, from a higher command, who in the strict hierarchy of militarist Japan was linked by a long chain up to the country’s head, Emperor Hirohito, who was considered a descendant of gods until the Allied powers forced him to renounce his divine status in the aftermath of Japan’s Unlike Crusoe, Onoda remains devoted to his god-emperor from begin
ning to end. His faith is solid, perfect, and resistant to both external reality and inner imperfection, which makes him human, albeit not a free spirit. Such individuals are commonly referred to as fanatics.
Herzog tries to romanticise Onoda by quoting a song that Onoda used to sing to himself on the island: “Quiet moon, I may look like a vagrant or beggar, / But you are witness to the majesty of my soul. Herzog also attempts to frame Onoda’s story by inverting the relationship between reality and dreams: “Why he often wondered, couldn’t his interminable jungle march be an illusion? But there’s nothing uplifting or romantic about the story of a guy brainwashed into believing his life would be fulfilled by serving as cannon fodder in an imperial war. Herzog ignores any of the underlying reasons Onoda remained so strangely loyal, instead viewing him as another individual imprisoned in a dream narrative designed to rationalise the insanity of the universe. But that dream narrative was written for him and his countrymen, with horrifying consequences for Japan and the nations it mercilessly invaded. To put it another way, would Herzog have written a similarly sympathetic book about an unreconstituted Nazi who had spent 30 years in an underground bunker anticipating the Reich’s victory?
Hiroo Onoda’s story highlights how Herzog’s fascination with dreams can develop into Freudian nonsense—an unwillingness to explain people’s behaviour to evident real-world causes, preferring to dwell on the mind’s maze riddles. Herzog’s propensity for viewing all of humanity through the perspective of the person over the elements is likewise called into question in The Twilight World. Yes, each human being contains an eternal and universal light. Individuals are incredible creatures, but humans can be cruel.