Encounters at the End of the World
by Christopher Long
Noel Carroll once placed Werner Herzog in a small group of filmmakers that included Stan Brakhage and Terrence Malick. According to Carroll these directors were characterized by a devotion to what he termed "the primacy of experience" and by the "presence" of their images. In the case of Herzog, Carroll referred to the director's tendency to hold shots much longer than usual and his repeated return to shots of the sublime, of vast empty spaces or decentered images designed to inspire awe in the viewer: the rows of churning windmills in Signs of Life, the endless rolling deserts in Fata Morgana, and the roiling ash cloud in La Soufriere are early defining examples. These images emphasize the act of looking for its own sake, and encourage the viewer to gape at the sheer spectacle of it all, independent of any narrative or informational content.
Antarctica should be fertile territory for the director to continue his purveyance of presence with its ice plains, blinding blizzards, and a surface as barren as the moon. Like a big game hunter, Herzog has made a living for five decades by hunting down and capturing landscapes and cultures on the margin. But a strange thing happened to Werner Herzog on his way to the seventh continent (also the seventh that he has filmed on): he suddenly became interested in people.
Herzog tips his hand right off the bat. On the plane flight from New Zealand to McMurdo Station, a research facility in Antarctica, Herzog wonders "Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world? What were their dreams?" Herzog discovers that McMurdo, despite its banal appearance, is indeed a place full of dreamers and eccentrics. The first he meets is a bus driver who quit his job as a banker in Colorado to work for the Peace Corps in Guatemala where he was once almost killed by machete-wielding Mayans. And that's only the start. A journeyman plumber believes that his unusually long fingers and rib cage prove that he is of Aztec heritage; a linguist is at a loss for words to explain why he has chosen to travel to a continent with no languages. Herzog is clearly fond of these men and women who live at the end of the world, and identifies them with playfully respectful labels such as "Philosopher/Forklift Driver" and another as a "Filmmaker/Cook." At one point, Herzog indicates his impatience to leave McMurdo to explore the inner continent, but after a brief foray onto the ice, he quickly returns to his collection of dreamers. The director who has engaged in a life long quest for "new images" resists the temptation of the unspoiled desolation of Antarctica and keeps his camera focused on the people at McMurdo, curious to know how each of them chose a path that led as far south as south gets.
Of course, everything is relative. Herzog bookends the film with underwater footage taken underneath the Ross Ice Shelf by musician and research diver Henry Kaiser (who also serves as producer and provides original music for the film). Herzog uses another lengthy stretch of this breathtaking footage in the middle of the film, allowing the viewer ample time ogle a giant dose of "presence" in the form of ghostly jellyfish, the frozen sky of the ice sheath above, and free floating divers who "look like astronauts in space." Kaiser's underwater footage is breathtaking enough to make Jean Painlevé proud, and Herzog is so impressed by it that he has now used it in two films: Kaiser's photography doubled as an alien water planet in The Wild Blue Yonder. Aside from his trips under the sea, however, Herzog only indulges his penchant for the sublime with a few measly aerial shots of icy expanses, the first of which arrives 12 minutes into the film and lasts a mere 23 seconds, a far cry from his languorous treatment of the burning Kuwait oil fields in Lessons of Darkness or the prolonged slow-motion shots of ski-jumper Walter Steiner in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner.
This continues a trend in Herzog's documentary filmmaking which began in the late 1990s with his troika of commemorative documentaries: Little Dieter Needs to Fly, My Best Fiend, and Wings of Hope, and was later amplified in Grizzly Man. In these films, Herzog deemphasizes the abstraction and extreme stylization that prompted Carroll's original comments about presence, and relies instead on more easily recognizable documentary elements such as interviews and archival footage. In the spirit of Tom Gunning, we could consider this a move away from a cinema of attractions to a more narrative-based cinema, but Herzog has always balanced his emphasis on the "primacy of experience" with story-telling. In more succinct terms, the trend in these films has been one towards talking and away from gawking.
It is tempting to ask why this idiosyncratic documentarian has shifted towards the mainstream in recent years. Perhaps the 65 year old director has mellowed with age, or maybe he had to adapt Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World to the more commercial demands of the Discovery Channel. While either explanation is plausible (though it is difficult to imagine the word "mellow" being applied to Herzog even today), it's important to note that while this shift is the major trend in Herzog's work over the past decade, there are exceptions. The last several years have also seen the release of Wheel of Time and The White Diamond, both documentaries which offer plenty of long takes, sublime images and plenty of opportunity for gawking. And The Wild Blue Yonder, with its oddball mix of archival footage, interviews, and a tongue-in-cheek science-fiction storyline, is his most experimental (and downright goofy) film in years. As always, Herzog is a director who remains resistant to easy categorization.
Herzog has spoken enthusiastically of his pursuit of "the ecstatic truth," a deeper level of truth that can only be achieved through invention and stylization. He considers fact and truth to be distinctly separate entities ("Fact creates norm, and truth illumination.") and has never been shy about scripting entire scenes and interviews in his documentaries, while seldom clueing the viewer on the fact that he has done so.
At first blush, "Encounters" appears to include a minimum of invention and stylization, but with Herzog's documentaries appearances are often deceiving. There is no single textual or contextual cue that definitively indicates a moment of invention in Herzog's documentaries. However, the director has worked and re-worked a series of themes, motifs and even specific lines throughout his career, and when these crop up in multiple films, the attentive Herzog-o-phile's ears prick up. When Stefan Pashov (our Philosopher/Forklift Operator) explains how he wound up in Antarctica with so many other adventurers, he describes it as a place "where all the lines on the map converge," almost the same language Herzog has used to describe Plainfield, Wisconsin, the American setting for Stroszek. Likewise, glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal's story about "the cry of the iceberg" sounds distinctly Herzogian and, from a purely subjective judgment, his speech sounds rehearsed rather than extemporaneous. It is, of course, possible that Herzog has encountered a kindred spirit who is also prone to poetic expression, but it is certainly suspicious
Sometimes the invention is more clearly coded. Herzog has frequently mined his previous films for repeated images. In one scene, several scientists place their ears to the ice to listen for the underwater calls of seals; the shot is almost a direct lift from Herzog's Bells from the Deep in which Russian pilgrims crawl around on the ice in search of a lost city. Still, on the Herzog scale, invention is kept to a minimum. As in Grizzly Man and other recent films, Herzog appears to shoot (mostly) straight.
In another recent trend, Herzog, who claims to have been born without a sense of irony, has also cultivated a dry (dare I say "ironic") sense of humor over the last several years. After lampooning himself in Zak Penn's mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness, Herzog has recently appeared on screen in The Grand, (yet another Penn mockumentary) as The German, an eccentric poker player with a fondness for strangling small animals. And The Wild Blue Yonder qualifies as his funniest film since Stroszek.
Herzog begins Encounters by marveling that his sponsor, the National Science Foundation, has greenlit his trip to Antarctica despite his promise that he "would not come up with another film about penguins." It turns out that this is a rarity in Herzog's oeuvre: a set-up for a punch line. Late in the film, he visits a penguin colony. Here he does not find cute anthropomorphized little critters on a heroic journey for survival, but rather a confused penguin that gets separated from the pack and wanders away to his doom. The image of a disoriented penguin running inland to certain death is vintage Herzog, a bone tossed to old school fans looking for the next dancing chicken or smoking chimpanzee. In another scene, Herzog listens to "Traveler/Computer Expert" Karen Joyce as she recounts a series of journeys in unlikely transport circumstances (she once traveled from Denver to Bolivia in a sewer pipe in the back of a truck). As she rambles from one bizarre tale to the next, Herzog gently cuts her off on the narrative track by observing that "her story goes on forever" a line that got a huge laugh from the Toronto Film Festival audience in 2007.
While Herzog's formal and rhetorical strategies may have changed in recent years, he remains as doggedly consistent in his thematic treatment as ever. The rebels and outsiders who populate McMurdo Station fit in perfectly with the menagerie of characters Herzog has gathered over the decades. Karen Joyce could walk side-by-side with mountain climber Reinhold Messner (from The Dark Glow of the Mountain); mechanic Libor Zicha, traumatized by his harrowing escape from behind the iron curtain, could be the brother from another mother of former prisoner of war Dieter Dengler. But in Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog does not merely seek to fix each of these stars into his personal firmament. Instead, he treats each with a gentle admiration that is deeply moving. Herzog has made the transition from presence to people with aplomb. Encounters, shot by frequent Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, is not only a beautiful film, but also one of the director's most sensitive.
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Cineaste, Vol. 33 No.3 (Summer 2008).