Roger Ebert was the most influential film critic in the United States, the first to win a Pulitzer Prize. For almost fifty years, he wrote with plainspoken eloquence about the films he loved for the Chicago Sun-Times, his vast cinematic knowledge matched by a sheer love of life that bolstered his appreciation of films. Ebert had particular admiration for the work of director Werner Herzog, whom he first encountered at the New York Film Festival in 1968, the start of a long and productive relationship between the filmmaker and the film critic.
Herzog by Ebert is a comprehensive collection of Ebert’s writings about the legendary director, featuring all of his reviews of individual films, as well as longer essays he wrote for his Great Movies series. The book also brings together other essays, letters, and interviews, including a letter Ebert wrote Herzog upon learning of the dedication to him of “Encounters at the End of the World;” a multifaceted profile written at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival; and an interview with Herzog at Facet’s Multimedia in 1979 that has previously been available only in a difficult-to-obtain pamphlet. Herzog himself contributes a foreword in which he discusses his relationship with Ebert. Brimming with insights from both filmmaker and film critic, Herzog by Ebert will be essential for fans of either of their prolific bodies of work.
As a fan of Herzog, I will read just about anything written about/by him. Unfortunately, I could never understand the appeal of Roger Ebert, whose reviews are so formulaic and ordinary that it’s a great irony that he became the champion of Herzog.
As such, Ebert’s inclusion is the weakest link in this book. Each review he writes of Herzog’s films has three parts: a summary of the film that is merely descriptive, a re-hashing of an old story (remember that time Herzog moved a ship over a hill!), and a hint that there is so much “deeper” about the film than what’s on the surface. But then he never expresses what that deeper substance might be. Other parts of the book include interviews with Herzog at various film festivals and events over the decades, which are much more enjoyable for the inclusion of Herzog’s voice, but often once again follow a formula: 1) Ebert fawns over Herzog, 2) Ebert makes incorrect observations about aspects of Herzog’s cinema which Herzog must then correct, and 3) Ebert asks Herzog to tell us once again about that wacky time he moved a ship over a hill (or any number of a handful of stories that Ebert repeats ad nauseum in his writings and discussions).
Less than halfway through the book, I was already bored by the repetition. (Again, “boredom,” “repetition,” and “formula” are three words that I’d never associate with Herzog, but they seem to be the prime traits of this book.) Near the end, the editors provide Ebert’s “Great Movies” reviews of Herzog’s films, which I always saw as an attempt to do some revisionist critiquing of classic films (and make some quick cash). The simple truth is that Ebert’s original reviews of these Herzog films — many of which appear near the beginning of this collection — were not really as “great” as the movies deserved, so I guess Ebert felt the need to re-write them later in his career. Their inclusion here adds a little more meat to the discussion, which is promptly nullified by Ebert mentioning the same old stories yet again.
In the end, who, exactly, is the intended audience for this book? If you are a Herzog fan, then you will have heard all these stories, and in many cases read the reviews and interviews. If you are an Ebert fan, then you will have likely read at least half of the book already.
Herzog by Ebert
by Roger Ebert
Foreward by Werner Herzog
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1st edition (Sept. 4 2017)