Friday, November 28, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World is a conscious sequel of sorts to his previous film, The Wild Blue Yonder, utilizing the footage of composer and underwater photographer Henry Kaiser, whose images from Antarctica appear in both films. The film is also a very Herzogian nature documentary, an attempt to find in an unfamiliar natural landscape the themes and ideas that animate all of the filmmaker's best work: the hostility of nature to man, the fatalist heroism of exploration, the religious and apocalyptic overtones that Herzog can find in seemingly any subject. He explicitly contrasts his effort against fluffy feel-good nature documentaries like March of the Penguins: he does not want merely pretty or cute images, but images that reflect his own insights into the natural world, with its cruelty, harshness, and a beauty that is not comfortable but overpowering, awe-inspiring. Even when he does come across some of the little waddling, adorable birds, leave it to Herzog to locate, and focus in on, an "insane" penguin. Herzog questions a reclusive penguin researcher, a man who seems more comfortable with birds than people, about the incidence of homosexuality, unusual sexual behavior, and dementia among the species he observes. The researcher responds with laconic anecdotes about the penguin equivalent of prostitution, and explains that for these birds the only analog to insanity might be their occasional tendency to grow disoriented and go where they are not supposed to go. There is obvious poetry in this. For birds whose lives consist entirely of a narrow track between the ocean and the nesting grounds, the ultimate insanity is the individualist drive to set off in a different direction. Herzog finds one of these nonconformist birds and isolates him in a large expanse of white, vacillating between the two accepted destinations before finally setting off in a third direction, towards a distant mountain range and almost certain death. His quest is quixotic, comic, and doomed to fail, but it is also in its odd, waddling way a noble venture. He is the penguin version of the archetypal Herzog hero: the penguin Fitzcarraldo, the penguin Aguirre.

This suicidally heroic penguin is not the only Herzogian character who seems to have cropped up in real life down at the south pole. In fact, one of the film's primary themes is the way that this extreme place seems to attract extreme characters of all kinds, all of whom suggest different metaphors for why so many unusual, solitary people have gravitated to a single location. Over the course of the film, Herzog meets and conducts interviews with a staggering variety of people. There's the compulsive world traveler who endured military coups, malaria and rampaging elephants in a trip across Africa, and who now enacts, in Antarctica, bizarre performance art pieces where she stuffs herself into a suitcase. There's a plumber and builder who's proud of his multifaceted heritage and displays like a badge the unusual configuration of his fingers, which he has learned marks him as a descendant of the Aztec royal families. There's a worker who's introduced with the immortal tag, "philosopher, forklift driver." There's a physicist whose study of neutrinos has led him to a quasi-spiritualist view of the universe: these invisible particles, which are everywhere and can be measured in abstract ways but never apprehended, are like harbingers of "the spirit world" for him, which makes his work the process of quantifying God. His scientific instruments are decorated with ritual inscriptions and art, signifying this unexpected overlap between religion and science. Under Herzog's inquisitive gaze, Antarctica becomes a transitory colony populated exclusively with exactly the kinds of people who might be expected to populate a Herzog film. Antarctica is transformed in the same way as the Sahara Desert was in the hallucinatory Fata Morgana, a film that is subtly referenced with an early shot of a plane descending on McMurdo base in Antarctica.

In addition to profiling these odd and intriguing characters, Herzog brings to Antarctica the apocalyptic view of the natural world that has been woven through virtually his entire filmography. There is perhaps a streak of masochistic glee in this director, who has forged his career around visiting and documenting the harshest, most unwelcoming frontiers in the world, and who then, naturally enough, finds that they confirm his essential opinion of the world as a cruel, uncompromising place. Herzog is the ultimate documenter of natural selection at work, whether it is the fate of jungle explorers going beyond human boundaries (Aguirre: the Wrath of God), the level of superhuman achievement where athleticism becomes life-endangering (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner), or the borderline where admirable determination shades into maniacal obsession (Fitzcarraldo). He is fascinated by things humans are not meant to do, and places where humans are not supposed to go, much as the "insane" penguin is not supposed to head for the mountains.

He also sees in this harsh terrain the closest approximation to true religious experience that humans can reach on Earth, although he never traffics in any hackneyed "beauty of God's creation" nonsense. For Herzog, underwater shots beneath the Antarctic ice floes have the atmosphere of "cathedrals," with their hanging ice stalactites and bizarre, translucent inhabitants. He accompanies these images with stirring choral music, though the spirituality he imparts into these hidden landscapes is indivisible from the science that documents them. Herzog knows that it is possible to understand the foundations of life, to study one-celled organisms for their DNA structures, and to still possess a mystical, spiritual appreciation for the wonders of the world. Kaiser's images have a spectral, unbelievable quality, imbued with rich shades of light and color. Even when, on occasion, the images have a creepy horror movie vibe — a series of haunting shots of tentacled creatures that look like alien monsters, photographed in a small circle of light amidst the blackness — they are still beautiful and moving.

Ultimately, Herzog's union of religious and scientific experience results in an apocalyptic vision that holds a dim view of humanity's chances for survival. He points to the extinction of the dinosaurs and says, "we seem to be next." This is a continuing theme for Herzog, who has now made at least two films (Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness) in which a future alien species arrives on a decimated planet and attempts to understand the remains of its strange culture. He raises the question again here, wondering what these hypothetical aliens would think of Earth if they took Antarctica as an example of the planet's culture: they'd find little but a frozen sturgeon and a handful of fake flowers surrounded by a ring of popcorn, cheesy relics frozen beneath the ice.

At several points, Herzog's apocalyptic fervor even takes a detour into earnest environmentalism, although always through the voices of other characters rather than from Herzog's own narration. Several of his interviewees take the opportunity to speak about global warming, green living, and the importance of taking these issues seriously. They look into the camera, with grave sincerity, and impart stern warnings that the world is on the brink of devastation. It's uncertain whether Herzog shares their cause, mainly because he seems to think that nothing can be done, and that humanity is doomed no matter what. Herzog can hardly be called an environmentalist, and as usual he completely ignores the political implications of his film's subject. When he brushes up against these environmental issues — as when he speaks with an ice researcher who talks about humongous melting icebergs and the rising oceans that result — he seems more interested in capturing the man's enthusiastic love of ice than in the actual substance of what he's saying. Herzog is stringently apolitical, and almost always has been, even when dealing with subjects that seem to demand a political point of view. As a filmmaker, he is simply not interested. His concerns are broader, both more universal and more personal. Indeed, his agenda might be described as the union of the universal and the personal. The philosophizing forklift operator explains it in the perfect way. He gets the final words of the film, taking over as the Herzogian narrator with words that might as well be coming from the director himself: "through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies, and we are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory."


Jason Bellamy said...

I'm glad you named the penguin scene. Really, can the words "certain death" resonate with greater doom than when voiced by Herzog? He had to love that he could narrate the cute little creature toward his demise.

I enjoyed this film, but the thing that irks me about Herzog's documentaries is that he gets lost in his own emotions. I'm fine with filmmakers who try to convince me to see the world through their eyes. But Herzog has a habit of telling me what his emotions are for each scene, leaving me little ability to have my own emotional reactions. Strange as this might seem, I'd actually prefer if he was stealthily manipulative instead. Watching his films, I find myself wanting to hush Herzog. "Quiet. I'm watching YOUR movie!"

Ed Howard said...

I like that Herzog's documentaries are so emotionally naked. He makes no attempt to pretend that these are objective accounts of anything, but lays it right out there that this is the world filtered through his own strange perceptions. The films are as much autobiographies or personal essays as they are documentaries. In this one, even when he's not narrating, the people he's talking to are often so Herzogian that what they're saying could fit easily within the voiceover. It really drives home that Herzog goes looking for himself and his personal set of preoccupations in whatever material he finds before him. I find it fascinating myself, and think that Herzog's voiceover is inevitably the best aspect of his documentary work. He doesn't want your reactions, he wants you to experience and understand his reactions.

That said, I find this film and many of his other documentaries tremendously moving and emotionally satisfying.

Jason Bellamy said...

"He doesn't want your reactions, he wants you to experience and understand his reactions."

Funny. It's like our "Synecdoche" debate. We agree about what's happening, but our reactions to it couldn't be farther apart.

That said: I do appreciate that Herzog's films are "emotionally naked" -- a perfect way of putting it. And to put it on movie criticism terms: I read film criticism for the subjective, to see a film through another critic's eyes -- as here with your review. So there's nothing wrong with a documentary filmmaker who does the same thing.

I think where Herzog's narration goes overboard is when he shows stunning images and says something to the effect of, "It's beautiful." Well, yes. I know it's beautiful. You didn't need to tell me. Same way that the Victoria's Secret catalog doesn't need captions that read: "She's hot!" Since the driving force of good cinema is the visual, there are moments I wish he'd leave me with that. I think he could still make it a personal diary and shut up a bit.

Ed Howard said...

Fair enough. Herzog does do stuff like that sometimes, though it doesn't especially bother me. But there are also many moments in this film where he goes silent and lets the beauty of the underwater images speak for themselves, usually accompanied by religious music. I felt like there were plenty of moments where he kept quiet and let the images do their thing. The sequence where he plays those bizarre seal calls that sound like electronic music is a case in point: lovely images of seals slowly navigating the underwater chambers, accompanied by those haunting squeals, with no commentary. I think if you revisited the film with this in mind you'd see that there are a lot more of these monologue-free stretches than you remembered. Herzog's distinctive voice tends to stand out in the memory, perhaps disproportionately to how often it appears.