Early on in Les Blank’s 1980 short documentary film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the star says in his unmistakable Bavarian-inflected English: “I’m quite convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking.” But almost as quickly as Herzog makes this bold if earnest assertion, he qualifies it: “Maybe there’s also another alternative: That’s walking on foot.” Several years before Blank’s documentary—in which Herzog famously eats his own leather shoe, expertly cooked by himself and chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, to make good on a wager with Errol Morris—the German filmmaker had entertained another, equally extreme proposition. In an attempt somehow to forestall what appeared to be the imminent death of Lotte Eisner, the great historian of Weimar cinema and biographer of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, he would walk from Munich to Paris in exactly three weeks in late autumn 1974.
“I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death,” Herzog explains in the preface to Of Walking in Ice, his diary account of his trek to Eisner’s sickbed. Equipped with little more than a jacket, a compass, a small duffel bag, and a pair of sturdy new boots, Herzog began his journey, a pilgrimage of sorts stretching nearly 500 miles. “I set off…in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” Herzog held fast to this mystical if otherwise absurd belief throughout. “Besides,” he adds with an unintended nod to Swedish screen diva Greta Garbo, “I wanted to be alone with myself.”
During the previous years, Eisner had become something of a spiritual mentor to Herzog. Born in Imperial Germany in 1896, she began her career as a critic writing for the Film-Kurier, one of Weimar Germany’s leading film publications. Like many German-Jewish intellectuals of her age, she fled Berlin for Paris in 1933, immediately after the rise of National Socialism. Eisner was sent to a French internment camp, but escaped and survived the remainder of the war under an assumed name. She later became a curator at the Cinémathèque Française, where she collaborated with the institute’s co-founder, Henri Langlois, and wrote her groundbreaking works of film scholarship. Herzog first encountered Eisner in the mid-1960s at the Berlin Film Festival, her first visit to Germany since she’d been forced to flee. There, he heard her deliver a speech that captivated him. “I walked past the open door of the lecture hall and heard her voice,” Herzog later recounted. “It was so stunning and so special that I just walked in and listened.” Eisner praised Herzog’s debut feature Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life; 1968), even allegedly raved about it to Fritz Lang, but never contacted the director. The two finally met in 1969, after a mutual friend put them in touch.
By Herzog’s own account, after his films faced a merciless flurry of criticism in the early ’70s, he acknowledged his increasing disillusionment with his chosen profession to Eisner over tea and cookies in her Paris apartment. “You are not going to quit,” she responded (or so Herzog tells it). “Film history will not allow you.” For Herzog, and for the young German filmmakers of his generation, Eisner’s encouragement offered a degree of legitimacy sorely lacking in the vacuum that was postwar cinema in the Federal Republic. “Just as Charlemagne had to travel to Rome to ask the Pope to anoint him,” Herzog later declared, with characteristic hyperbole, “in the case of New German Cinema we were fortunate to have Lotte Eisner to give us her blessing. She was the missing link, our collective conscience, a fugitive from Nazism, and for many years the single living person in the world who knew everyone in cinema from its first hour on, a veritable woolly mammoth.” Eisner would serve as the voice-over narrator of Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971) and even visited him on the set of Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; 1974), a film Herzog dedicated to her.