BY Ed Luker in Books , Opinion | 12 SEP 22

The Death of the Auteur: Unpacking Werner Herzog and Michael Mann's Debut Novels

A wry interrogation of 'The Twilight World' and the literary sequel to the Hollywood blockbuster 'Heat'

BY Ed Luker in Books , Opinion | 12 SEP 22

This year, Werner Herzog and Michael Mann published the results of their respective ventures into prose writing. One can only assume lockdown boredom and the limits COVID-19 placed on filmmaking precipitated their literary endeavours. Both directors chose to lay bare their career-long glorification of the masculine ideal. However, the real story here is that mastery of the camera does not necessarily translate into skilled prose.

From Fitzcarraldo (1982) to Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), the jungle has long been a preoccupation for Herzog. With its relentless hostility, it’s an ideal setting to explore one of the German director’s continual concerns: people living in extremity. In his first novel, The Twilight World (2022), Herzog blends fact with fiction. He recounts the 29 years that Japanese Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda spent conducting guerrilla warfare in the jungle on Lubang Island, the Philippines, against the local population and its allies.

Werner Herzog on set of Fitzcarraldo
Actors Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale on the movie set of Fitzcarraldo (1982), directed by Werner Herzog (foreground), on location in Peru. Courtesy: Sygma via Getty Images; photo: Jean-Louis Atlan

While Japan surrendered on 2nd September 1945, Onoda was so committed to serving Emperor Shōwa of Japan that he continued to fight until his eventual surrender to the Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, in March 1974. Multiple attempts had been made to communicate the end of Onoda’s duties. However, he believed these were enemy tricks. Herzog’s novel shows how Onoda’s fierce purpose grew beyond duty into delusion. 

In an interview with Kate Kellaway for The Guardian about his latest release, Herzog said: ‘the films are my voyage, writing is home’. But The Twilight World is fiction riddled with the holes left by a distancing narrative style. While we learn of the privation Onoda had to survive, we gain no deeper insight into his character beyond the assumptions we are led to make from the outset – the narrative amounts to little more than an ouroboros of masculine tropes. 

Hiroo Onoda
Hiroo Onoda walking from the jungle where he had hidden since World War II, on Lubang island in the Philippines. Courtesy: JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Image

It is Onoda’s unceasing sameness that Herzog seems to value. Having finally returned home, Onoda is disgusted by the consumerism of 1970s Japan, and flees to Brazil to become a rancher. Herzog characterizes Onoda’s motivations using only the most general values: ‘loyalty’, ‘stoicism’, ‘honour’. In this separation from psychology, the novel becomes little more than an alphabet soup of prelapsarian virtues, with Onoda’s noble commitment standing against the frivolity of modernity. What’s more, while Herzog ennobles Onoda for his heroism, he fails to recognise that most of his victims were defenceless peasant farmers.

Heat 2 is Michael Mann’s prose follow-up to his all-action 1995 blockbuster. The novel conjures a world of detectives and thieves, flashing lights, SWAT teams, shoot outs, and freeways in flames. It might please Mann enthusiasts, but not many others. In revisiting the overlapping lives of detective Vincent Hanna and career criminal Neil McCauley (portrayed by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the film), Mann lays it on thick, taking pleasure in aestheticizing machismo. There is an interesting contrast here with Herzog’s adulation of Onoda, except Mann has switched military valour for honour among thieves and cops. 

Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer in Heat (1995)
Film still of Michael Mann's Heat (1995)Courtesy: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Heat centres its plot around professional bank robbers after huge targets, with Heat 2 traversing the decades either side of the events depicted in the film. In the 1990s, Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer in the original) escapes Heat’s central heist and fleas to Paraguay, where he becomes embroiled with a Taiwanese crime syndicate; in the 1980s, Hanna hunts down a crime leader and violent rapist called Otis Wardell. If this novel had been shaped by a more expert hand, the two stories would link together. But like long-lost twins, the only connection they share is to their progenitor, the original Heat

There’s something deeply compelling about Mann’s cinema. Thief (1981) has beautiful cinematography. There’s stylish grandeur in Heat’s depiction of murder and valour. Even Miami Vice (2006) united Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in a stupid, sexy splendour. But Mann’s kitschy prose lacks the magic that makes his screen work so special. Mann worked online on Heat 2 with his co-author Meg Gardiner for a year before they met. Despite the time put into it, the prose can read like harried notes toward a screenplay, a kind of high-octane associative poetry: ‘Jeans, boots, T-shirt. The shooter. Someone named Wardell. A corpse.’ If The Twilight World is an alphabet soup of bygone virtues, then Heat 2 is a leaky barrel of action-movie clichés – the story just won’t stop spilling out. 

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino with Michael Mann during the premiere of Heat (1995)
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino pose with director Michael Mann at the world premiere of Heat (1995) in Burbank, California. Courtesy: AFP via Getty Images; photo: Vince Bucci

With all its excesses, Heat 2 flattens into a bullet-spray staccato of tedium, like watching someone else play Grand Theft Auto V. Characters and scenes jump around in folly. There’s no perspective that holds the multiple plot lines together. Prose fiction requires chiselling of the interior realm in a way that screenwriting does not. The result? Heat 2 plays a heist on its readers: Mann’s characters are little more than emptied bank vaults. Even though the actors from Mann’s original Heat are now sun-soaked geriatrics, I’d still advise casting them in the inevitable adaption of Heat 2. It would be an expensive failure, but at least it would be entertaining.

Thumbnail and Main Image: Cover detail of Heat 2 (2022) by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner. Courtesy: HarperCollins

Ed Luker is a writer and critic based in London. He is currently working on his first novel.