Trapped in a Sauna with Werner Herzog


Around this time of year, I usually begin my regimented steam baths to keep the broncule tubes nice and clear of blockages. This usually entails a few trips to the sauna, salt baths, mineral mists spas and hyperbolic chamber-assisted respiration therapy all in the hopes of preventing a couple days of a runny nose.

Yesterday I started with the sauna at the gym. It's included with your membership and has a real nice, if low-rent, Swedish spa vibe. It was early and the gym had only been open for an hour, so foot traffic was low. After pilates I wrapped myself in my C.H.I.P.S beach towel and trotted of into the sauna. Now it's not exactly a spacious steam room, more like a 5' x 6' planked floor with a bench and shelf nailed to the wall but its got the rocks and smells like fine maple wood.

As I tried to get settled and wait for the humidity to kick in, it became clear I was going to be here a while; as the first person in the steam room that day, I was stuck waiting for the rocks to do their thing.

That's when a shape eclipsed the light streaming in through the discreet window in the door. Someone was about to enter. With a whoosh, the door was pulled open and in stepped Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker and documentarian. Freshly showered, naked as a jay-bird, and sopping wet, he regarded me a moment. "Hello theres," he burped through a thick, Eastern-European drawl. "Uh, How's it goin?" I returned. He paused and took in the room, his tongue flicked out once or twice like a reptile tasting its surroundings. His eyes narrowed. "How long have you been in heres?" "About ten minutes, I had to turn it on that's why it's not hot yet, sorry." He continued staring. "Three minutes more we will wait then." With that, he plopped himself onto the bench opposite me and placed his hands in his lap like a boy waiting to be called into the principal's office. I politely stared at the floor, inched a little closer to the heating element upon which the rocks were piled. Unable to find a proper spray bottle, I'd searched the room a moment earlier and found an empty water bottle but hadn't used it yet for fear of over-soaking the heater and shutting it off.

Them saunas is way more dangerous than you think.

"Is that the rock water?" Werner inquired. He stood up and leaned over me, reaching for the bottle on the shelf over my shoulder. A torrent of Werner Herzog shower water dribbled allover me, smelling like a combination of ground pepper and Irish Spring. With bottle in hand, he turned to the heater and began dumping the contents on the rocks.

"Uh, I don't think you're supposed to use that much," I cautioned. "You cannot be with fear, this will start the process..." the room suddenly filled with steam as he then emptied the rest of the bottle on the metal heating element beneath the rocks.

"Breathe with me now," he urged. "Lean in and let the vapors take you." I drew in a breath but all I could smell was eau d'Herzog. He turned and clambered up onto a second, higher bench behind him. Still dripping wet, he feng-shui'd himself into a prone position, like a super model lying in the surf. As he jostled himself about, the squishing and squashing of his belly and middle-aged extra pounds sounded like jello being squeezed through a turkey-baster.

"Much better to open yourself to the healing powers of the heat."

My eyes locked on the door, the only escape from the now boiling room blocked by Herzog's upper body. Avoiding even a cursory glance at the naked auteur, we sat in silence, him regarding me with a thin-lipped smile. It was like being trapped with a naked, Dr. Strangelove-sounding Cheshire cat. Finally he started again. "Do you believe there ist a hell?" "Uh...not really, i guess." He chuckled long and and knowingly. I could feel tears welling up in me as all hope began to fade.

This man had forced South American natives up mountain sides dragging a steam boat behind them, repeatedly stared down the barrel of a gun in the hands of Klaus Kinski, survived an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, and probably listened to that recording of Timothy Treadwill and his girlfriend getting eaten by a grizzly bear at least a hundred times when making Grizzly Man.

And don't forget, he directed this. This was was in the final cut.

I didn't want to imagine what this man's ideas on eternal damnation might entail. "You know what I think hell ist?" He offered. The fear finally overcame me and I leaped past him and wrenched the door open.

"That's three minutes, you're good to go!" I blurted and bounded out into the change rooms to gather my things.

Once dressed, I made sure the coast was clear and headed out of the gym and back into the world. Reflecting on the encounter, I could only take comfort that it hadn't been as awkward as that Chinatown massage parlour with Roman Polanski: "Rem'amber Michael," he had opinioned, "There's n'aver any happy endings..."

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