By Nick Gibiser
Doc-Lands Contributing Writer
I visited last year’s Virginia Film Festival intending to watch Les Blank’s How to View a Rose, a film about legendary documentarian Ricky Leacock. Instead I was greeted rather abruptly by a title card reading, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
Over the next twenty minutes, I watched Werner Herzog do just that, and I could not be happier about the movie theater’s mix-up.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, also directed by Les Blank, was released in 1980 and follows the noted German director as he fulfills his promise to eat his shoe if director Errol Morris ever completed his film Gates of Heaven. Morris released his film in 1978, and Herzog kept his word.
The documentary cuts between Herzog preparing a pair of shoes at the kitchen of famed Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse, being interviewed in the back of a car, and actually eating his shoe at the UC Theatre. Blank successfully navigates the absurd process, giving Herzog ample time to justify his thoughts and actions while never shying away from the enigmatical nature of his subject.
Herzog bounces from thought to thought, decrying the destructiveness of commercial television and lauding cooking and walking as the only two alternatives to filmmaking. He ponders the social value of films while consuming a shoe encrusted with garlic, onion, rosemary, and hot sauce.
At its core, this film is about having the guts to pursue art. It is about having the drive to do whatever it takes to create art that, in Herzog’s words, provides us with “adequate language or adequate images.” Herzog is adamant that his stunt is meant not only to provide publicity for Morris’s film, which at the time had no major studio backing, but also to inspire young artists who do not have the “guts” to start their projects.
And in that way, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is an unexpected success. The film, even 36 years after its initial release, captures the earnestness of Herzog and the impassioned meaning behind his often unimpassioned tone. Herzog may be ostentatious, but he is a man who lives up to his word and goes to extremes for the sake of his art.
Where the film falters is in its failure to contextualize its subject. Those unfamiliar with Herzog or Les Blank may leave this movie confounded and confused by the strange German man waxing poetic on the state of civilization. Blank asks his viewers to accept the filmmaking institution that is Herzog in all his faults and glory with little explanation. The film is not inaccessible, however, as the spectacle of the shoe eating keeps a firm enough grasp on the audience’s attention. At a runtime of only twenty minutes, the film feels neither too long nor too short.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is at once funny, maddening, inspiring, and eye-rollingly pretentious. But most importantly, it is incredibly entertaining.
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe can be purchased on DVD through Les Blank Films. It can also be streamed through Kanopy, a streaming service which is available, free of cost, to students and faculty members at many American colleges and universities. Sometimes copies are also available on the internet.
Should you have the opportunity to watch Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, however that opportunity presents itself, I highly recommend you do so.