The great thing about Werner Herzog (or rather, one of the many great things – great and weird and wonderful – about Werner Herzog) is that he doesn’t really adhere to any set definition of what cinema is, its construction or what it should do as an art form. He simply gets on with making his kind of cinema. And Herzog makes unique films. There aren’t many directors of whom you can say this – Powell and Pressburger for their romantic excesses; Ozu, at the other end of the spectrum, for his calmness and classicism – but Herzog’s films look different to other directors. Isolate just a few frames from virtually anything he’s made and it would immediately be apparent that those few frames were from a Herzog film. A film nobody else could have made.
Let’s go further. Werner Herzog doesn’t really adhere to any set definition of the documentary, either. On the face of it, this ought to be simple. Documentary: a non-fiction film that documents a specific subject. Hence “documentary”. Hell, you can even incorporate fictional scenes – from historically accurate re-enactments to pure supposition – and call it a “drama-documentary”. Easy to define, yet remarkably flexible in the approaches one can take. You can make documentaries that use only music and/or landscape. You can have one that’s just a blue screen with a voice-over. You can be subjective or objective. You can call it a documentary but deliver a polemic (anything by Michael Moore) or a work of propaganda (Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’).
Yet when Werner Herzog makes one, you might as well throw away the word documentary because no matter how flexible, how unconstrained in terms of cinematic language or construction, it’s still a definition. And definitions don’t work with Herzog, even here where ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is ostensibly one of the Bavarian director’s more accessible works.
I say accessible because it’s not obtuse (or baffling) as ‘Fata Morgana’, not as impressionistic as ‘Lessons of Darkness’, and not as emotionally devastating in its search for what Herzog terms “ecstatic truth” as ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’. In a nutshell, and Herzog himself sets this out in his typically dry voice-over at the start, this is what ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ is about:
Inspired by the stunning underwater photography of his friend Henry Kaiser, Herzog travels to McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica under whose gargantuan ice floes Kaiser’s footage was shot. Herzog meets scientists, engineers and eccentrics and determines that he doesn’t want to make “another film about penguins”.
In fact, it’s more easy to categorise what ‘Encounters’ isn’t about. It’s not about global warming, climate change or mankind’s impact on the planet, even though the way Herzog films the wreckage of a helicopter or a juggernaut trundling through the shanty-like buildings that comprise McMurdo makes an environmental point as effectively as anything in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ or ‘The 11th Hour’. It’s not about the nature of the research carried out there, even though Herzog gives over chunks of screen time to talking heads whose expositional verbiage threatens to become white noise. It’s not about how you have to be a little bit crazy to work at McMurdo, even though Herzog unblinkingly films a woman contorting herself inside a piece of hand luggage, and two middle-aged scientists with electric guitars throwing shapes against the implacable expanse of the ice fields. And it’s not about penguins, even though the most memorable shot in the film features one.
Ah, yes: the penguin. Despite his disparaging voice-over, Herzog can’t avoid them and penguins totter inevitably into his film. An interview with ecologist David Ainley, in which Herzog blandly eggs the scientist on to a discussion of penguin sexuality (apparently a form of prostitution has been observed on the floes), segues into footage of a lone penguin breaking from its comrades and tottering off in the wrong direction. Ahead, hundreds of miles of nothing, rising to massive glacial peaks. Herzog’s camera frames the frozen wasteland, the penguin receding to a tiny dot as it wobbles off to almost certain death.
I started this blog because of Werner Herzog. He was the subject of my first half dozen or so posts and more than a few subsequently. I’d be lying if I said writing about his work was easy. You can talk about the visuals – few film-makers have ventured as far afield as Herzog and come back with such a striking testament to the danger as well as the grandeur of the natural world. You can talk about the inspired lunacy of some of his projects. You can mention opera, rivers, flight, deserts, grizzly bears and now a suicidal penguin … but you’d just be writing lists of things at that point.
Towards the end of the film, Herzog speculates as to what aliens, arriving on earth long after the disappearance of the human race, would make of the remains of McMurdo; what questions they would ask. They would probably find the answers if they stumbled across Herzog’s filmography – or at least start asking the questions that mattered. In its own demented way, that lone penguin says something about the human race that’s equal parts poignant, pathetic and haunting.