Werner Herzog bets fellow filmmaker Errol Morris that he won’t be able to complete his debut feature Gates of Heaven (1978). Herzog is so convinced that Morris won’t be able to finance and release the documentary about pet cemetery business that he’s willing to eat his shoe, if his friend should succeed. Morris does indeed succeed, but will Herzog live up to his promise? You better believe it. After boiling his boots for 5 hours with a little garlic,herbs, stock, salt and hot sauce – Guten Appetit!
Although Les Blank’s short documentary is aptly titled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), we never actually see Herzog eating his shoe. There’s however proof that he did it, in fact it was an event smartly planned and executed before the premiere of Morris’ film. Although the whole thing could be viewed as nothing more than a publicity stunt, Herzog tries to convince us otherwise. Blank’s short opens with Herzog commenting on the contemporary state of television and how embarrassing and destructive it is.
Ironically, Herzog’s stunt(s) might have been a source of inspiration for a popular TV reality series which came out exactly twenty years after this film: MTV’s Jackass. While Herzog was trying to do a good thing by raising awareness for his buddy’s mirco-budgeted indie, he may have (on a surface level) engaged on the same level of the TV trashiness he condemns. What’s the difference then? Herzog’s was a one time event, it wasn’t planned or studied to enrich him personally. It all started as a rather innocuous bet.
Herzog ate his shoe because he’s a man of his word and because he wanted to support good cinema and a personal friend. He realizes that in doing so he’s “degrading” himself to a clown, but he sees it as something necessary. I like the clown image he uses, because it’s close to performance art, rather than exploitative filmmaking. That’s probably also the reason why Les Blank chose not to film Herzog actually eating his shoe. In this way Herzog was both able to keep his promise and maintain his dignity.
What’s shown then? Well, Blank decides to intercut images of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), where Chaplin’s Tramp character actually eats his shoe, because he’s starving. Blank also choses to include scenes from Herzog’s own Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), which was clearly inspired by Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Once again, the inclusion of those films is symbolic, commenting on Herzog’s act as both an artistic necessity and a potentially pointless act of madness.
For once the tables have turned: Werner Herzog is the crazy one. Herzog’s filmography seems to be a collection of the most insane and mad people imaginable, but if those characters all came from the same mind, what does that say about the auteur? Les Blank’s not as bold as to conclude that Herzog is crazy, but Herzog himself probably has no doubt that he’s a bit nuts. After all if we’ve learned anything from Werner’s films it’s that we’re all a bit bonkers, because life is pretty much nonsense. That’s the main thing I take away from Herzog’s films.
A contradiction that bothered me slightly more is that first we are shown Werner Herzog clearly speaking out against advertising and how images in ads are misleading. He says that it’s a filmmaker’s job to create true images for society. But then he’s shown shopping for new shoes at Timberland. Now admittedly product placement isn’t the same thing as a traditional TV spot or print ad and of course Blank is directing this film, but why include a scene like that? Is Blank trying to make us question Herzog’s integrity?
Overall, I feel that everything that is good and enjoyable about this short comes from Werner Herzog, the man, the filmmaker and the auteur. Les Blank’s editing, musical choices and “angle” are a bit more questionable. I don’t feel he is as competent or confident as Herzog in what he’s doing and maybe that’s the short documentary format for you, but still I expected him to do more with such a great story like this one. Don’t get me wrong this film is entertaining and discussing a lot of interesting ideas, just don’t expect to see Herzog actually eating his shoe.
7 out of 10