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Werner Herzog Tests Himself Against the Wilderness

“The Twilight World” is the summation of a lifelong obsession with chaos, hostility, and meaninglessness.

The jungle is Werner Herzog’s preferred habitat. It is the setting for two of his most famous movies, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It is the implacable foe that is miraculously defeated by the subjects of two of his best-known documentaries, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Wings of Hope. It is where man meets nature at its most extravagantly cruel, where he can test his mettle and thereby understand himself. The jungle is “full of obscenity,” Herzog says in Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the disastrous filming of Fitzcarraldo. “The trees here are in misery. The birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain.” He then clarifies, “It is not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much.”

Herzog returns to the jungle in The Twilight World, his first novel. It is based on the travails of Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese Imperial Army soldier who was stranded on a remote island in the Philippines at the end of World War II and kept up the fight for another 29 years, unaware that his country had surrendered. Like Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man and other quixotic figures in the Herzog canon, Onoda is driven to extremes by an intoxicating blend of passion and delusion. He fits so neatly into the Werner Herzog Cinematic Universe that it is not clear exactly why the director chose to tell his story in the form of a novel, which often reads like a voice-over in a Herzog film. Try reciting these lines without slipping into the German’s dour cadence: “The jungle does not recognize time. They are like two alienated siblings who will have nothing to do with each other, who communicate, if at all, only in the form of contempt.”

It turns out that The Twilight World is another platform for Herzog to explore the themes that have defined a body of work that stretches back to the late 1960s: man against nature, the thin line between dreams and reality, the tireless search for meaning in a meaningless world. That it is a novel doesn’t really distinguish it from his previous work, in which documentary subjects speak in long, staged paragraphs while actors must perform the impossible feats that their crazy characters are attempting. The book’s epigraph could stand as a summation of Herzog’s tendency to dissolve the difference between reality and fiction: “Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.”

The Twilight World
by Werner Herzog
Penguin Press, 144 pp., $25.00

What makes The Twilight World unique is Onoda himself, since his mad exertions arose from the very specific historical context of Japanese militarism. Onoda was not a creative visionary who wanted to build an opera house in the Amazon. Nor was he an endearing kook who believed he had a special relationship with Alaska’s brown bears. He was one of millions of Japanese citizens who were indoctrinated in a cult of emperor worship and merrily went to war under that banner. That Herzog doesn’t quite grasp this distinction, that he sees Onoda as just one in a pantheon of Sisyphean figures waging private struggles in the face of the eternal jungle, reveals the limitations not only of his first novel but of his other work as well.

The Twilight World begins with one of Herzog’s favorite framing devices: a possibly apocryphal story involving himself. He visits Japan in 1997 to direct an opera, and his hosts tell him that the emperor would be willing to grant him a private audience. To their great embarrassment, Herzog declines, saying that if he could meet anyone in Japan, it would be the former soldier Hiroo Onoda. So begins a relationship that, we are led to believe, forms the basis of Herzog’s understanding of Onoda’s misadventures on Lubang Island.

It is as though “I’d been there myself,” Herzog writes, as his narrator drops into the jungle and begins to observe it like a camera’s eye. He records an arresting image of a young Filipino man hurrying down the path amid a rainstorm: “in one hand he holds up over his head the remnants of an umbrella, now nothing but a wire skeleton and shreds of cloth, in the other a bolo knife.” Here in miniature is the condition of the jungle, where the umbrella—symbol of civilized life, the elegant invention that shields humankind from the elements—has been reduced to tatters by the island’s relentless downpours. This, we understand, is the realm of the knife, of hacking and sawing and gutting.

Then, as the Filipino man moves out of the frame, the narrator shows us Onoda, who emerges like Rambo from the wall of jungle in camouflage, as if he were part jungle himself: “He peels the wet leaves off his legs, then the green twigs he has carefully fastened to his body.” It is 1974, and Onoda has been hiding in this jungle for 29 years.

Onoda is discovered shortly afterward by a Japanese explorer who views the missing soldier as akin to the abominable snowman, his ghostly half-sightings being featured regularly in the Japanese press. It dawns on Onoda that he has spent the prime of his life fighting a war that was lost decades earlier. But Herzog is not so much interested in Onoda’s long-belated contact with reality. He quickly puts the gears in reverse, and we are now in 1944, the fateful year when Onoda is charged by his commanding officer with holding the island as the Imperial Army’s forces retreat from an American invasion. “You are to defend its territory by guerrilla tactics, at all costs,” he is told.

What follows is a comedy of errors told with utmost Teutonic seriousness. Onoda throws himself into his mission, instructing his small team to blow up a pier that is still being used by retreating Japanese soldiers. His blunder is so egregious that an officer berates him: “Man, don’t you see our troops are using the pier?” When the Americans sweep across the island, this tiny outpost of the Pacific Theater becomes strategically useless, yet Onoda forges on with three companions, burrowing deep in the jungle to avoid detection and the humiliation of surrender. Over the years, they come across leaflets dropped by Allied forces and newspaper clippings that prove the war is over, but these are dismissed as enemy propaganda designed to derail their vital task of holding Lubang Island until the Imperial Army can make its glorious return. They see evidence, too, that the war is ongoing—fighter jets overhead, military maneuvers in the ocean—without realizing that these are the traces of subsequent wars in Korea and then Vietnam.

Their ordeal becomes a story not of battle but survival. They raid the island’s villages for rice and slaughter water buffaloes for meat. They learn how to unseam a coconut to get at its milk and flesh, and how to make a fire by vigorously rubbing bamboo stalks together beneath bamboo shavings (a technique featured in at least two of Herzog’s jungle films, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and its Hollywood dramatization, Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale as the pilot Dieter Dengler). They are constantly on the move to elude the Allied forces they believe are arrayed against them, only daring to settle down in a makeshift hut made of saplings during the monsoon months, when it rains so ferociously that they feel no one will come looking for them.

There are enemies everywhere, but none so merciless as the jungle itself, which is bent on destroying everything they need and possess. Their uniforms, their weapons, their supplies of food—all are beset by a frightening deterioration, as if the jungle’s very breath were toxic. “The humidity gnaws at everything,” Herzog writes, “everything rots, frays, crumbles.” Onoda learns how to make coconut oil so that he can preserve his guns, bullets, and samurai sword, a precious family heirloom that keeps him anchored, however tenuously, to his past existence. “This is like a green hell,” one of Onoda’s companions says. “No, it’s just a forest in the tropics,” he responds.

His comrades eventually surrender or are killed in clashes with Filipino forces. Onoda soldiers on alone, seldom seen, shading into the realm of myth—“an impalpable dream figure, an elusive and deadly mist, a rumor, a report,” Herzog writes. When he is finally discovered, he says he will surrender only if his commanding officer orders him to give up the fight. The officer, now an elderly man, is brought to Lubang Island and relieves Onoda of his duties. His war is over at long last, but he is impassive. The officer asks him, “Lieutenant, are you all right?” Onoda responds, “Sir, there is a tempest raging within me.” Coming near the end of Herzog’s slim novel, it is a rare indication that this character has any interiority at all. Herzog’s gaze, like a camera’s, can only capture surfaces.

Herzog is famously a bit of a nihilist. “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder,” he muses in Grizzly Man. But he is also an incorrigible romantic, who sees a great deal of nobility in man’s attempt to make sense of the senselessness that surrounds him. Indeed, the more ridiculous the endeavor, the more touching it is. “I shall move a mountain,” Fitzcarraldo declares, wild-eyed and wild-haired, which is how both geniuses and maniacs can look. One of the most profound images in Herzog’s body of work is the final scene in Aguirre, in which the camera whirls around Klaus Kinski as he drifts down a tributary of the Amazon River on a raft, his character’s dreams of finding El Dorado shattered. His whole life is revealed to be a fantasy, and the world a stage where it played out.

There’s an element of the romantic as well in Herzog’s jungle survival tales, where the universe boils down to individuals wrestling with nature and being shaped by it in turn. Wings of Hope tells the true story of Juliane Koepcke, who survived not only a plane crash in the Amazon but an 11-day trek through the rain forest before she found help. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the tale of Dengler’s escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Laos during the Vietnam War, in which the surrounding jungle proves far more harrowing than the camp itself. (As one character says in Rescue Dawn, “The jungle is the prison, don’t you get it?”) As Dengler describes the ceaseless rain and his poor, shredded feet and the leeches that fasten to his body every single night while he sleeps, it finally becomes clear, with the force of revelation, that his will to prevail is utterly extraordinary—that human beings are extraordinary. This is why Herzog loves the jungle, for its capacity to show us at our most abject and our most inspiring.

Herzog’s belief that meaning is created out of meaningless suffering takes him to some interesting metaphysical places. For Herzog, reality (that arena of blind, groping havoc) is no more real than our imagination (the realm of beauty and order superimposed on the world). “Everyday life is only an illusion, behind which lies the reality of dreams,” a character says in Fitzcarraldo. Or as Herzog himself puts it in Burden of Dreams, expanding the subjectivity of dream life to a universal phenomenon: “It’s not only my dreams. My belief is that all these dreams are yours as well. The only distinction between me and you is that I can articulate them.”

Unfortunately, this rather neat philosophy falls apart in the case of Hiroo Onoda. Herzog’s American publisher describes The Twilight World as a “modern-day Robinson Crusoe tale,” a comparison that, in its total wrongness, is actually instructive. Robinson Crusoe begins with its protagonist receiving a sign from God—a savage storm wrecking his ship—that he should obey his family’s wishes and refrain from a life on the high seas. He sets sail anyway, and his punishment is that he ultimately finds himself exiled on a remote island with a bunch of cannibals. Crusoe’s failure to heed God’s commandments gets him into trouble but also makes him an empathetic figure. To err is human, after all.

The Twilight World also begins with its protagonist receiving a sign from God—or rather, from a superior officer, who in the strict hierarchy of militarist Japan was connected by a long chain all the way up to the head of the country, Emperor Hirohito, who was considered a descendant of gods until the Allied powers made him renounce his divine status in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat. Unlike Crusoe, though, Onoda remains faithful to his god-emperor from beginning to end. His faith is ironclad, perfect, impervious to both objective reality and inner frailty, which makes him human, too, though hardly a free spirit. We normally call such people zealots.

Herzog does his best to cast Onoda in a romantic light, quoting a song that Onoda used to sing to himself when he was on the island: “Quiet moon, I may look like a tramp or beggar, / But you are witness to the glory of my soul.” Herzog also attempts to frame Onoda’s saga in terms that invert the relationship between reality and dreams: “Why, he often asked himself, couldn’t it be that his endless jungle march was an illusion.” But I find nothing uplifting or romantic about the story of a man who was brainwashed to believe that his life would reach its fruition by serving as cannon fodder in an imperial war. Herzog doesn’t engage with any of the actual reasons Onoda remained so bizarrely steadfast, preferring instead to see him as yet another person trapped in a dream-narrative created to justify the absurdity of the world. But that dream-narrative was created for him, and for his compatriots, too, with ghastly repercussions for Japan and the nations it ruthlessly conquered. Put another way: Would Herzog have written a similarly sympathetic book about an unreconstituted Nazi who had spent 30 years living in an underground bunker, awaiting the victory of the Reich?

The story of Hiroo Onoda shows how Herzog’s fascination with dreams can veer into Freudian nonsense—a reluctance to attribute people’s behavior to very obvious real-world causes, preferring instead to dwell on the mazy mysteries of the mind. The Twilight World also calls into question Herzog’s predilection for seeing all of humanity through the prism of the individual fighting the elements. Yes, in each person there is a light that is eternal and universal. But while individuals are remarkable creatures, people can be quite awful.