Friday, July 11, 2008

Herzog in the land of penguins

Anyone familiar with the work of Werner Herzog knows that the German-born director has a taste for extremes. Herzog makes features ("Rescue Dawn") and documentaries ("Grizzly Man"), and his filmography virtually brims with one eccentric dare after another. So if Herzog takes his camera to Antarctica, it's a safe bet that he's not coming home with something conventional. It's an even safer bet that Herzog's movie will reflect his vision, which in this case comes wrapped in a doom-laden, somber package.

"Encounters at the End of the World" is no Al Gorish warning about global warming. It's not an occasion for liberal hand wringing, either. Rather it's an ominous rumble of doom concocted by Herzog from ingredients that should be incompatible, but somehow aren't. Odd bursts of absurdity (an interview with a woman who drove across Africa in a garbage truck) mingle with prophetic pronouncements (interviews with scientists who look ahead to a time when all humanity resides in history's bone yard). To further up the ominous ante, Herzog accompanies his images with music that sounds as if it had been composed in some mysterious cavern where the cosmos retreats to ponder itself.

Could it all be some sort of monumental goof? I wondered. It's difficult not to laugh when Herzog asks a scientist whether penguins have been known to suffer from insanity. It's a purely Herzogian question, and it doesn't necessarily require an answer. Rather it reflects the director's view that all creatures probably suffer terrible deviations from normalcy. He also wants to know about "prostitution" among penguins, activities in which the females engage in deception and award sexual favors for gain. He chooses the word "prostitution," as if he's imagining female penguins of easy virtue standing provocatively on the corner of ice flows, whistling to prospective Johns. It's preposterous, of course, an imposition of a morally charged word on creatures that live beyond such conceptual judgment.

Upon arriving at the grim-looking McMurdo research station at the South Pole -- Herzog rightly compares it to an outpost on an alien planet -- the director unpacks a kit full of bleak lyricism: He interviews scientists and induces many of them to acknowledge that man's life on Earth may be drawing to a close. He also finds many kindred spirits, including a plumber who talks about his Aztec roots. He presents McMurdo as a repository of weirdness, the place at the bottom of the world to which brilliant misfits inevitably tumble, strange filings drawn to a powerful magnet. As attracted as he may be to these eccentrics, Herzog can't wait to get away from McMurdo, which carries what he regards as the taint of civilization, abominations such as an ATM machine and a yoga studio.

None of this is to say that Herzog can't be awestruck. He makes spectacular use of undersea footage, some of it shot by the film's producer Henry Kaiser, who also wrote the music. And his view of Antarctic tends to underscore its beautiful severity: One scientist describes the world under the ice -- i.e., the ocean -- as one of rampant hostility, an environment full of cruel, life-crushing jokes. One creature entraps its victims. The more they struggle, the more ensnared they become. So the movie is about impending doom, but also perhaps about the abundant horrors that go along with survival.

As for insanity among penguins...Herzog discovers that some penguins buck the tide. Instead of walking toward the ocean with his fellows, one penguin insists on waddling toward the mountains, a journey that will bring certain death. Isolated from his companions, he marches dutifully toward his demise. Is he a stand-in for Herzog? For all of humanity? What makes a creature -- any creature -- bring such inexorable will to his own self-destruction?

Herzog seems less interested in providing answers than in casting a grave spell with this documentary, one of his best, I think. Rather than inundate us with information, he travels across terrain so forbidding, it's clear that humans don't belong there. And he raises an awful question that rumbles through the entire movie: How long will it be before we don't belong anywhere?

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