The Reeler


September 10, 2007

Herzog on Ice

Reeler @ TIFF: Werner Herzog on extinction, audiences and his Antarctic Encounters

The iceman cometh: Werner Herzog (left) with his one-man Antarctic crew shooting Encounters at the End of the World (Photo: Discovery Channel)

Much like his dreary fictions, Werner Herzog's documentaries strive for a spiritual reconciliation of the human soul and natural destruction. His latest, Encounters at the End of the World, is no exception: Herzog journeys to remote research stations deep within the immense void of Antarctica, illuminating natural beauty and its devout admirers. If you caught Film Forum's nearly comprehensive retrospective of Herzog's documentary oeuvre last May -- or even if you just saw Grizzly Man -- you know the drill: Herzog lingers on the outer rim of his movie, commenting on its central thematic thrust as a lyrically partial observer. And the observations are both diverse and eccentric, with memorable appearances from a rock star scientist, a fugitive PhD candidate and one comically suicidal penguin. (The Reeler previously covered Herzog's work-in-progress screening in New York last May.)

THE REELER: The first thing immediately apparent about Encounters is that you're focusing as much on the people who work in Antartica as you're studying the place itself.

WERNER HERZOG: It's contained in the title of the film: Incredible spaces; incredible landscapes; very intense people -- all people whom I love, but I had no idea who I was going to meet there. I have to say that, for the first time in my life as a filmmaker, I was scared, because I had no idea who I was going to meet. There was no scouting. There was no preparation for it, because you only go to Antarctica under special circumstances. I went there to come home with a movie.

R: How much preproduction research did you do?

WH: Nothing. I mean, sure, I tried to find out which scientific projects were going on, but, in the brochures of the natural science foundations, it's so abstract that you can't really figure out how fascinating it is and how fascinating the people behind it are. But wherever you poke in Antarctica, you find incredible people.

R: Do you usually prepare more before beginning production?

WH: Yes. There was no research in this case. I was just thrust into Antarctica and I knew I had to come back with a film. It came very easily. The moment I arrived, it fell in place.

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R: It's certainly the least critically oriented documentary of late to deal with the environment.

WH: Yeah, but it has a more long-ranging vision. Of course, let's put global warming aside. It's a big issue in Antarctica. Many of the scientists speak about the human race, which doesn't really seem to be sustainable on this planet for much more time. One of the many reasons for that would be a radical climate change, but it could be many other things. You just name it. We have to get accustomed to this uncomfortable thought that human life on this planet is not really sustainable. But it has not been sustainable for many other species, and it has been a chain of catastrophes. The catastrophe that stands out is the elimination of the dinosaurs. Nature is going to regulate us fairly soon. That's a different perspective that you get when you look from the South Pole.

R: You often speak of striving for an "ecstatic truth" in your documentaries, rather than the naturalistic formalism of cinema verite, which you've dubbed an "accountant's truth." In this situation, much of the documentary's power comes from the beauty of the images. Couldn't a cinema verite approach capture this as well?

WH: Of course, [the film] is about people as well. But I always knew it would be a film about unfathomable spaces and solitudes. The beauty of untouched landscapes. I always knew that would be a solid element in the film. I played it out -- for example, the underwater footage under an ice shell. The wonderful thing is that you film it and just have to name it. You don't have to say anything further. You just present the glory of this creation. It's like an invocation of what's the most wonderful thing in this planet.

R: The way that you use narration in your documentaries is integral to their execution. How important is this approach for you? Do you wish that your fellow documentarians would use it?

WH: No. Each one has to find his or her own way to do it. But, of course, films like Grizzly Man or Encounters are driven by thoughts, ideas. In a way, it's a good part of the substance of the film, and quite a few of my films. [Other filmmakers] have to do it the way they have to do it. For God's sake, don't try to make Errol Morris imitate me -- even though he did, in a way, when he did [Fog of War]. He broke it down into lessons, and it's clearly taken from my Lessons of Darkness. But it doesn't matter. Let him do it.

R: Have you spoken with him about his upcoming Abu Ghraib documentary?

WH: I have been at the set. He invited me while he was shooting. I might meet with him in a week.

R: Are you going to be involved in the production?

WH: No, not at all. I'm a deeply sympathetic observer. A friend who's always trying to encourage him, no matter how successful he's been.

R: Have you read his New York Times blog?

WH: No, I haven't heard about it.

R: Do you care about the audience turnout for your movies?

WH: It does matter. I make films for audiences. When I showed [Encounters] for the very first time at Telluride, you had to take the gondola up to the mountain in the Mountain Village. The screening started at 8:30 in the morning, so you had to take the gondola at 7:30 in the morning. It was 500-seat audience and packed to the last seat. Seeing that at 8:30 in the morning gave me great pleasure.

R: Overall, how do you feel about your experience with Rescue Dawn, your first American commercial film? It was a critical favorite that underperformed as a film in wide release.

WH: It went very well. Come on -- I've been blessed with wonderfully responsive audiences.

Eric Kohn is a regular contributor to The Reeler who is also blogging the Toronto International Film Festival for the New York Press. Read his latest coverage here.

Comments (1)

This interview help me understand the deep motivations of Mr Herzog. Thanks Eric

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