Early in Werner Herzog's unique, striking new documentary Encounters at the End of the World, the great German filmmaker reminds us that this will not be another movie about penguins. Spoken in Herzog's familiar rich, ironic drone, the line gets a big laugh, but it also brings up a good point. Does the inclusion of Herzog's personal interests make this a better movie than March of the Penguins? And, ultimately, what do we really expect from a documentary?
Let's look at these questions a little later, and get back to Herzog's film, which starts in Antarctica. Actually, it started a couple of years ago when Herzog incorporated some astonishing, underwater footage into his all-but-unreleased film The Wild Blue Yonder (2005). A photographer friend dove under the Antarctic ice to shoot images of the unbelievable creatures, shapes and displays of light that could only be seen there, and Herzog used the footage in his film to represent life on another planet (!). But the pictures apparently continued to fascinate him, and so he journeyed to the earth's southernmost point to learn more.
Herzog's documentaries (and indeed most of his fiction films) usually have something to do with man's relationship to nature -- none more so than his big 2005 hit Grizzly Man -- and his new film is no exception. He arrives at Antarctica's McMurdo Station, the headquarters of the National Science Foundation, where some 1100 people live on top of the massive groaning ice chunks. It's the "summer" months, from October to February, when the sun never sets.
He interviews the people who live there, described as "full time travelers and part time workers." But he is as disappointed as he is enchanted, and he allows these conflicting emotions to comfortably mix throughout the film. He describes McMurdo as an "ugly mining town," filled with tractors and black, muddy tire tracks. He's even more repulsed by the idea of a yoga studio (he calls it an "abomination"). He attends a class to train visitors how to survive in the snow, but quickly grows frustrated as a "buckethead" exercise (in which white buckets are used to simulate a white-out situation) goes awry.
The best thing about Herzog's films is that he follows his instincts and lets his curiosity lead him to the next sequence. He dutifully interviews several scientists to get details about things like shifting ice, neutrinos and volcanoes. He gets some fascinating tidbits, but sometimes becomes bored or irritated and begins narrating over someone's speech.
He interviews a penguin scientist, despite warnings that the man is not the most socially adept creature on the planet. Herzog's interview stalls, and so he begins asking increasingly absurd questions ("are there gay penguins?"). He becomes more fascinated by a single penguin that strays off from its course and begins wandering alone toward the mountains, and toward an almost certain death. Herzog adds some poetic narration, wondering about the penguin's lonely, perhaps pointless journey. Other times, he becomes enthralled by a minor character, such as a plumber (David R. Pacheco Jr.) who shows proof of his royal Aztec/Inca lineage with his odd-shaped fingers (his first and fourth fingers and second and third fingers are exactly the same length).
Usually in Herzog's films, we see nature winning over man's best attempts, such as the jungle beating Aguirre, driving him mad and thwarting his attempts to find the city of gold in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). But part of Herzog's frustration and restlessness in this film is that this time man appears to be winning. He makes fun of anyone who makes a quick jaunt to Antarctica for the fun of it, such as a man who wants to enter the Guinness Book of World's Records by doing the same tricks on every continent, as opposed to an explorer like Shackleton, who risked his life to pass through the same environment.
Perhaps his favorite subject is Stefan Pashov, whom he credits as a "forklift driver and philosopher." Though Herzog appears to have edited his footage in the same rough chronological order of his visit, he keeps returning to Pashov, who offers things like "we are the vehicle through which the universe becomes conscious of its magnificence." This idea seems to please the great filmmaker more than the idea of yoga.
Encounters at the End of the World contains some facts about Antarctica and most viewers will walk away smarter than they were before, but it's a kind of rambling, exploratory mess, alternately curious and fastidious. Herzog is not afraid to reveal his own filmmaking process, to express his boredom and his missteps as well as his enthusiasm and successes. The film is really more about Herzog than Antarctica.
As for March of the Penguins, I can't even remember the name of the guy who made it, much less tell you anything about him. So which is better? Well, it really comes down to apples and oranges, and each one has its purpose. March of the Penguins is better journalism. It's more factual and perhaps more useful. But Herzog's film is something closer to art; it has a direct line to its creator's soul. If you see a lot of documentaries and that tired, old PBS format with the talking heads, narrator and clips has started to wear thin, Herzog's open, honest film is as refreshing as an icy breeze.