Short Documentary Review: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980). Les Blank Doesn’t Show Us.

werner herzog eats his shoe (1980)
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,herbsstock, 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

7 comments

  1. moonroadfilms

    Reblogged this on moon road films and commented:
    I have seen this film as part of a Herzog double-bill at Sheffield Doc Fest last year and it blew me away. This was a film presented together with ‘Burden of Dreams’ about Herzog’s ordeal during the filming of ‘Fitzcarraldo’ a 1982 epic starring Klaus Kinski. Brilliant stuff and very inspiring if not slightly unsettling for those people out there thinking about starting a career in the movie industry. There is something that occasionally drives you to wanting to eat bits of clothing and furniture. Anyway, little did I know last year I was about to work with Herzog on his latest film ‘Queen of the Desert’.

  2. Mark Aldrich

    About 16 and a half minutes in, Werner Herzog is chewing (and talking at the same time; one would think his mother would have taught him otherwise), so I do think we see him eating the shoe. I definitely agree that Blank is a bit too busy with the intercutting and, in a precursor to Ken Burns and his technique of panning over still photos, ZOOMING in on still photos. There is an annoying busy-ness with the camera movement and editing; the camera is an attention-grabbing character in a film that does not require one.

    Blank was not an amateur and had made plenty of movies before this one, and he made a couple dozen after, many of which are fine, but this short film is his best known possibly because it is about two more famous filmmakers (Herzog and Morris).

    The boot was prepared by chef Alice Waters, one of the best known chefs of the last two generations. She founded Chez Panisse restaurant and popularized California cuisine and the organic foods movement; the influence of those two things is pretty much only seen in the extensive use of pastels in restaurant decor since the ’90s and the higher prices. (I’m being sarcastic. Upstate New York, where I live, has quite a few Chez Panisse-influenced menu prices.) Chez Panisse no longer offers any leather or shoestring dishes on its menu. Herzog got the only sample.

    At the moment, the full film is available on Dailymotion.

    David, I thank you for turning my attention to several different movies and genres since I started reading your website–I had read about “Werner Herzog Eat His Shoe,” but I went searching for it simply thanks to your review here; same with “Plastic Bag.” I always bookmark your reviews when I see that there is a new one up.

    Mark

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