Encounters at the End of The World, a film and conversation with Werner Herzog.
Man, for the grief he gets into on every film he makes, Werner Herzog looks fantastically youthful. He is full of life and vim and many opinions. In his latest, wonderful documentary, Herzog goes to the South Pole and points his boundless curiosity at everything. What seems at first like a classic Discovery Channel documentary about scientists in the South Pole, turns out to be a highly idiosyncratic film. (NOTE: Everybody needs to see Grizzly Man).
Herzog brings his camera and adjusts his interests to whatever happens to cross his way. There seems to be no overarching structure but that of living in the moment and seizing opportunities, finding unexpected things and people in unexpected places, and yet the film is hugely entertaining. Herzog is fascinated by the motley bunch of eccentric explorers and scientists who have seemingly fallen to the bottom of the Earth and who share a desire to leave the world behind. His narration has a wonderful sense of humor and irony. None of that stentorian, heroic voice a la Morgan Freeman, waxing poetic about the wonders of nature. He has great comic timing, the freshness of a child running around with a camera and the sophistication of a mature artist. Herzog knows that the breadth of human experience in the natural world is painful and complex, and he refuses to fall into cliches. His choices are always fascinating. There is a marvelous business with emergency training for snow storms where people run around Antartica with their heads inside buckets (to simulate zero visibility conditions) and he lingers lovingly, bemusedly in the cartoony hilarity of something that would be horribly tragic if it actually came to pass. When he gets to cover the penguins, he asks a taciturn penguin watcher if penguins can go crazy and then happens to find one who apparently does. As he emphatically explained in conversation, he has little patience for people who think the universe is in harmony. He says it is a violent, disturbing place, but still he finds grace and wonder, both in humans and in nature. He is refleshingly wary of tree huggers and animal lovers who whine about global warming but don't care about the death of human languages. He is a true eclectic with a mischievous streak, announcing gleefully to the audience that he staged some of the scenes of the film, albeit with the purpose of getting to a deeper truth. He has a very poetic way with images. Everything with him feeds into a sense of wonder, and that is what he communicates. Fortunately, he is not a sentimentalist and has no patience for manipulative drivel on the order of March of the Penguins (which I find as repulsive as he does in its shameless antropomorphism).