A review of Werner Herzog’s Antarctic documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”
by Bill Jirsa
Bill Jirsa is a computer technician working for Raytheon in the United States Antarctic Program and was interviewed when Herzog came to the ice in the austral summer of 2006 by permission of NSF’s Writers and Artist’s Grant. Jirsa is a featured interviewee in Herzog’s documentary.
“While other documentaries have gone to this rarely seen part of the world, in Herzog’s hands it becomes about the magical underworld. The scientists [sic] are not boring nerds, but world travelers and poets. One man [Bill Jirsa] working is a trained linguist, living in a place where no language originates. Another man takes a break from his welding to explain his Apache royal heritage. A woman doing research [sic] relates tons of stories of near deaths in various countries, including going from city to city in a sewer pipe that was on the back of a truck, a free ride. Meanwhile the surroundings above and below the ice look like outer space, filled with new species found every day. Herzog takes Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and gives it existential balls. He comes to the conclusion that nature will not put up with humans forever, sooner or later taking the Earth back from us.” —Mike Plante, writing at Filmmaker Magazine blog
Documentaries of Antarctica tend to follow the accepted principles of documentaries about nature: equal parts pious and sentimental. If they chronicle the people, they do so with reverence for science and exploration. They report the drama of discovery with a dash of personal danger and two shakes of sacrifice for the nobility of human inquiry. For all the drama, they seldom delve deeply into the intellectual particulars that are the backdrop of the day-to-day tedium of science—that would be dull television. While PBS no longer maintains a monopoly on the format, it seems we can depend on a burgeoning list of cable outlets to add to the genre a beautifully produced, if formulaic hour of this sort annually.
About the wildlife, a typical Antarctic documentary parades before the lens charismatic megafauna and never fails to anthropomorphize: Circus tunes for the tuxedo-bound, clowning penguins, sinister scores for the menacing leopard seals. While we alternately fear them and fear for their extinction, the appropriate response is a concoction of wonder and respect (upon which we are often invited to attach our own favorite ideals: witness the sensation of March of the Penguins turning Emperor Penguins, briefly anyhow, into an icon of family values.)
About the environment (so stark and yet so beautiful!), the Antarctic documentary is obliged to the aesthetics of a Sierra Club calendar. The romantic notion of pristine environment dictates that the landscape is portrayed sans humanity. IMAX Antarctica, for example, strangely concedes a population without once allowing them to talk. The only speaking role is the narrator, whose awestruck, yet formal accent renders Mount Erebus with a rolled ‘r.’, Wilderness is a temple, the tone suggests. Although in 1991, the case for global warming was still couched in hypothetical consequences, the IMAX film is a primary example of the orthodoxy of the green documentary.
These principles have been the codified standards of nature documentaries since the rise of the conservation movement in the seventies. That’s when the old guard-Marlin Perkins, et al. looking like scholarly Hemingways in their khaki safari garb and broadcasting weekly episodes of men dominant among the kingdom of beasts-turned over the watch to Wild America, for example. (That sturdy PBS series and paean to modern ecology, was soaked in piety and sentimentality, with ideals as furry as Marty Stauffer, its hirsute host.) Forty years later, the hairstyles have changed again but the values guiding nature documentaries have not. (The late Steve Irwin, with the Discovery channel, resurrected the man vs beast format with an extreme-sports spin for the Mountain Dew generation, but even the Croc Hunter had a green heart.)
This formula endures because it works. It re-enforces what we want to believe about the wild nature. The romantic notions our culture maintains about the value of wilderness and wild nature do not always jibe with our relationship to it. But we read these values into our relationship to the place when we send people to Antarctica to study and explore, so the films we make about our experience here are testimonials to that purpose.
Enter the famous European art-house director, Werner Herzog.
Particularly if you have weathered our mass culture’s most recent obsession with penguins from the Antarctic, it’s hard not to be titillated in the first five minutes of Encounters at the End of the World when Herzog, in the halting Bavarian accent that is instantly familiar to viewers of Grizzly Man, announces that this Antarctic documentary will not be about “fluffy penguins.” This maverick director has just confessed his filmmaking axiom: bugger the rules. Whatever its merits and foibles, Herzog’s contribution to the cinematic representation of the last continent is something new.
No doubt, Herzog fills his lens with images of sublime grandeur, but they are just as likely to hold in the foreground a clattering Caterpillar tractor raking over permafrost. Before the cathedral-like backdrop of the Transantarctic Mountains, a C-17 cargo jet, trailing a greasy plume of exhaust, lands on an ice runway. Researchers take a break from the noble quest for knowledge to watch campy science fiction movies by generator power or celebrate the discovery of a new species with a raucous outdoor blues jam under the midnight sun.
The piety in this film, at least the conventional brand, is gone. No misty-eyed reverie over sepia stills of Old Time Explorers. No preachy warnings about global warming. Penguins make an appearance, but only for a moment of speculation about homosexuality in the breeding colonies (touché family values) and then to linger on the plight of a straggler whose behavior Herzog interprets as “deranged”.
These scenes of Antarctica will find their unlikely home on the Discovery channel when Encounters airs later this year (theatrical release of the film is planned for June 11 in North America). But Herzog’s documentary of the contemporary United States Antarctic Program will likely remain a most improbable, and therefore indelible addition, to the otherwise homogenous canon of Antarctic documentaries.
Werner Herzog, Dire Romantic
While Herzog dispenses with the customary doctrines of making movies about Antarctica, he does not come to Antarctica without predilections of his own. For one thing, he retains his delight in the peculiar: researchers poised, listening for sounds from under the sea ice, Karen Joyce stuffing herself into an orange bag, people at snow school wandering the ice shelf with buckets on their heads. In one characteristically prolonged shot, someone holds the frozen carcass of a sturgeon that has found its way into the shrine-like catacombs under South Pole.
Herzog is still a romantic, if a dire sort. Despite an aversion to sanctimony, he cannot resist his lyrical inclinations-though his sense of the sublime is slanted toward the surreal. At its most spiritual, Encounters includes some striking underwater footage. Divers hover under a canopy of ice, marveling at the bizarre panoply of life in a world at the brink of freezing. He likens the rituals of preparing to dive to those of a priestly class preparing for mass, and, in case we miss the comparison, he scores the scenes to Gregorian chanting.
So Herzog’s eccentric eye has supplanted the conventional. But Herzog is loathe to devote his celluloid to the unmediated virtues of the environment. His real fascination lies with the vagaries of human preoccupation, and though the natural world often factors in his films (Herzog loves a tale of man against nature) it is always through the eyes of his subjects that he espouses a vision of the natural world. In this regard, Encounters fits snuggly in the Herzog oeuvre. Encounters is a travelogue, a loose concatenation of profiles collected during Herzog’s six-week visit to McMurdo Station and vicinity, one that posits a human frontier populated by eccentric dreamers that only Werner Herzog could discover.
The typical hero of a Herzog film is an iconoclast (almost always a man), desperately at odds with the ordinary world. Probably he sees a truth or possesses a vision that others do not. That personal vision drives our Herzogian hero into extremity, for extremity is where Herzog thrives. Man, pushed to the brink by truth, becomes beautiful.
The 1972 hit Aguirre, The Wrath of God chronicles a Spanish conquistador’s Amazonian search for the mythical El Dorado that ends in madness and violence. In Fitzcarraldo (1982), considered one of the director’s masterworks, an obsessive opera aficionado strives to build the first opera house in the Peruvian jungle and comes to calamity. Both films are set in the wilderness of South America, displaying Herzog’s attraction to frontiers-landscapes at the margins of civilization. (Both also feature the inspired and manic acting of Klaus Kinski, whose real-life bouts with madness on the set are the subject of cinema legends. Kinski’s tempestuous career is the subject of a Herzog profile My Best Fiend).
In fact Les Blank’s 1982 documentary, Burden of Dreams, about the turbulent filming of Fitzcarraldo on location in the wilds of Peru, frames the cineaste’s work as a Herzogian tale of its own. The documentary suggests a reading of Herzog’s filmography in which the subject is actually Herzog himself, driven by his cinematic vision. Taken together, the films of Werner Herzog can be seen as one long cinematic quest for ecstasy through extremity. Within the confines of convention, his oeuvre seems to say, genius cannot thrive. To achieve glory, one must strain against the customary approach, overreach, risk everything to attain one’s dream. Only then will something beautiful arise.
Of late, Herzog has set aside dramatic film to explore the vehicle of documentary filmmaking to advance his premise (or, in the case of Rescue Dawn and Little Deiter Needs to Fly, he tells the same story in both documentary and dramatic form). Documentaries enable Herzog to step out from behind the camera, further evidence that the overarching theme of his films is a psychological self-portrait. Herzog lends his wry voice to the narration of films like Grizzly Man (2004) and The White Diamond (2005) and it is through Herzog’s eyes that we see the eclectic dreamers that he profiles.
In Timothy Treadwell, the American naïf whose fascination with Alaska’s grizzlies spelled his own end in Grizzly Man, Herzog found a perfect foil for his sinister view of wilderness. As David Denby points out in his review of the film in the New Yorker, part of the reason the film works so well is the juxtaposition of Treadwell’s guileless faith in the gentleness of nature with Herzog’s darker vision. At the same time, it seems a signal that in this phase of his filmmaking, Werner Herzog himself has become essential to Werner Herzog films. This notion is certainly evident at the crux of Grizzly Man when we do not see what Treadwell’s own camera recorded while he was mauled by bears. Instead, Herzog chooses to show us an image of himself as he listens to the audio. The movie is as much a portrait of Herzog’s fascination as it is a document about Treadwell.
In many ways it’s ironic that the success of Herzog’s chronicle the events that lead to Treadwell’s mauling has resulted in repeat work from Discovery Channel in Antarctica. Discovery is the sponsor of so much of the kind of documentary filmmaking that Herzog’s work intends to stand on its head.
Antarctica’s Blank Canvas Syndrome
Herzog’s habit of injecting himself into his documentary work has drawn criticism from those who expect documentarians to behave like journalists and endeavor to minimize interpretation or slant. To such detractors, Herzog stands between the viewer and the subject, when his proper place is behind the camera. Herzog has even been accused at times of scripting passages of films that purport to be spontaneous.
But Herzog vocally and articulately defends his technique in his public speaking, and on his web site: wernerherzog.com. Recent profiles such as the 2006 piece by Daniel Zalewski in the New Yorker have done a fine job of propagating the notion that by leaving aside stony objectivity Herzog captures something more alive even if it is not always strictly accurate.
Working in Antarctica, we witness documentary film teams at work around us just about every season. The differences in Herzog´s style were easily witnessed in 2006, especially to those of us who became part of the film.
In my job I have frequent exposure to science proposals that the National Science Foundation grantees write. Among dozens of proposals to measure carbon dioxide, to place GPS stations, to attach tracking beacons to penguins, Herzog’s film proposal stands out like mystic poetry among a pile of bank statements. He is the first to my knowledge to promise the National Science Foundation to go deeper than the “superficial truth” of the place and document the “ecstatic truth” of Antarctica. My only question is whether Herzog has succeeded in replacing that linear, logical, superficial truth with a genuinely deeper truth of Antarctica or merely with one that emanates from the filmmaker himself.
Antarctica has long suffered from the blank canvas syndrome. Too few people have a depth of experience with the place to advance the dialog beyond a few basic tropes. Even to those of us who ‘live’ here, the geography remains ineffably other. For this reason, the first priority of any broader dialog of Antarctica lingers at the need to explain, leaving little room to build interpretively or comparatively. Hence most works about people in Antarctica spend a great deal of expository exertion on the novelty of quotidian detail, and beyond that the intellectual landscape is wide open.
In a place where the sun never sets, then it never rises, where the sea is frozen and the entire mass of cultural geography amounts to a lone flag lost in the expanse of a polar plateau, it gives new dimensions to the idea that “there’s no there there.” We are at home here, but we can never fully live here. Meanwhile Antarctica waits for its Joan Didion or Barry Lopez, or even for a Simone de Beauvoire to happen through. From outside our little encampments, the wide white landscape, void of inhabitants (void even of most recognizable forms of life), seems to invite us to fill it up with our own intentions. Antarctica, the idea, struggles to shed its frontier phase, unable yet to challenge the ideas of whatever auteur takes it for a subject.
So it’s not surprising that Herzog is able to render the continent as a tableau to sketch his oddball collection of eccentrics in his own light. Even more than any of us who work here, he and documentarians like him are visitors, transients with their pet notions that the locals are more than happy to confirm.
Any sort of portrait album inherently posits a collective biography. The impression one gets from the sampling of Antarcticans in Herzog’s film is that we are a bunch of highly articulate, internationally flavored, vagabond philosophers, dreamers and wanderers who put down their duffles in the last frontier on earth. Jack Kerouac meets Edmund Hillary.
There are snippets of dialog that flow from the mouths of people who I have worked with for many seasons (I have spent 22 months on the ice in the last four years). At first some of the interviews startled me. It’s possible that many of them have hidden their lyrical side from me, but I think I can recognize Herzog’s language in their sound bites.
A Linguist in a Language Desert
On the face of it, my own personal story of an attempted Ph.D in linguistics fits the Herzogian template. I have the biographical quirk of being a trained linguist, one who hoped to study dying languages, who works on the only continent with no indigenous languages at all. Werner couldn’t resist that detail, so we arranged to meet at the McMurdo greenhouse and tape an interview.
Those who decry Herzog’s meddling with objectivity would find enough to get excited about in the details of our interview. I resisted the specific language he suggested for me, mainly on the principle that I like to speak for myself, not because I felt it distorted my story. Also I think his leading me was motivated by the need for brevity as much as for the specific content. At any rate, my recalcitrance resulted in some amusing edits. In the version I saw at the Telluride Film fest, I got summarized by Herzog’s voice over. Werner got the last word.
The worst crime in Herzog’s world is for one man’s ambitions to be flattened by the prevailing values of a society. And so Herzog lays the blame for my aborted graduate studies upon academic codes of conduct that demanded that we halt inquiry and destroy any data we had collected when the native speaker we wanted to work with quit (nevermind the man’s personal wishes). Indeed, that was part of the event, but we’re talking about a complex life-decision I made over a decade ago, so reducing it to a sound bite feels constraining to me.
Herzog also places blame for the tragedy of language extinction at the feet of the “tree-huggers and whale-huggers” (the phrase I wouldn’t repeat) who monopolize the public’s short attention for good causes. My present work doing computer support for NSF grantees means that I actually work with people who study whales. Though I’ve never seen anyone attempt a hug yet, I don’t blame them or any other environmentalists for the anemic cultural awareness for the plight of endangered languages.
I think in more sober light, or considered at greater length, my story probably seems less extreme, but then perhaps that’s just because my story, like the others around me, are familiar. Reduced to quick sketch, it can be used to assert that we Antarcticans are eccentrics at loose ends and to make the case that the extreme south attracts drifters, dreamers and oddballs like a magnet. Then again, the story is true enough: My linguistics is part of my Antarctic tale: if I hadn’t failed to complete that degree, I’d never have come to Antarctica.
Who are These Antarcticans?
I’m sometimes tempted think of the people who work in Antarctica as the 21st century equivalent of the people on the great 18th and 19th century voyages of exploration, if you replaced the naval order of the day with today’s corporate bureaucracy and government agency inefficiency. I see a demographic that resembles the one you’d find, say, on Captain Cook’s boat: a few scientists, a bunch of officers, technicians, craftspeople, and a whole lot of grunts.
My particular demographic strikes me as a class of perpetual gappers (some refer to the year between college and joining the workforce the “gap year,” when it’s acceptable to backpack across Europe, teach English abroad, work at a ski lodge, etc before settling down into a “normal” life. People in their gap year are gappers). So my cohort is the group who are still cobbling together a living from jobs that are versions of jobs that we held a decade ago in ski towns and national parks. Through Herzog’s eyes, we find ourselves transformed into itinerant saints for whom the setting for our daily life is a great, mythic space: the last frontier on our planet.
Partly, I’m flattered. In prouder moments, I really do see us as bold adventurers doing the hard work of pioneering science in an extreme environment. I suppose the 19th century cowboy may have been briefly aware of the fleeting milieu he inhabited and rare flashes of insight about the mythic space it would become. But I have to assume that for the majority of people in the Old West, work was work.
So it is for the Antarctican. We live in dormitories at the whim of company policy. We are cooked for and cleaned up after. Families are not welcome. We eat, drink, sleep, love and mostly work in a drab collection of scruffy structures at the edge of an inhospitable wasteland. While the job attracts dreamers, for sure, it also gathers up a good many arrested development cases and derelicts. Herzog has taken what can appear to me as a class of unmoored, feckless but nevertheless interesting wastrels (among whom I sometimes count myself) and cast us in glorying light, sanctifying the self-mythologizing impulse of anyone who has made it to Antarctica.
So how can I mind? Looking into the business end of Werner Herzog’s lens for a day was like getting out of town on a boondoggle. Among the thousand or so people in McMurdo last year, Herzog chose me to help advance an idiosyncratic and sometimes wayward thesis about the place I work. It may not be fair to the majority of people who visit Antarctica, but it’s more complex and certainly more accurate about my personal experience of the place than the sum of the movies I’ve seen that are set in the penguin colony. In that much, Herzog has found his truth.