Saturday, January 31, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog, 2007

I braved the crowds once again at the Centre Pompidou to get into the Herzog retrospective tonight. (See my review of Fata Morgana)

And, as always, I wasn't disappointed. Encounters at the end of the World is familiar because we have seen Herzog go many times before to far off lands to discover the eccentrics who inhabit them. And, even though the outsiders who are the subject of this recent documentary are in Antarctica, like all Herzog's visionaries who, removed from the insanity of the everyday world that clutters the mind and the spirit, they too impart wisdom and understanding of otherwise infathomable phenomena. 

Despite the repetitiveness of Herzog's documentaries, I always notice something different, something that seems so obvious, I wonder why I never noticed it before. Tonight I was fascinated by the invisible line trodden by Herzog in his ability to represent the humor in and of his subjects, while granting them the utmost respect and sincerity, and simultaneously inviting his audience to marvel at the subjects' enlightened ability to see a truth about the world that isn't available to the likes of us who obey the routinization of life in ... well, Paris, for example. So, on McMurdo Research Station we meet scientists who stage an "open air concert" on a rooftop in sub-zero temperatures at the South Pole in celebration of the day's esoteric molecular discovery on the ocean floor. Or the adventurer whose one woman show at the talent night sees her zipped up as carry on luggage. And then there is the linguist turned horticulturalist who ends up being a philosopher before Herzog's camera. He tells his story and weaves it with that of the rapid extinction of languages, likening his plight to preserve natural species as akin to his failed doctoral dissertation in linguistics. Herzog interrupts him, "making a long story short" and yet, somehow, we don't feel the intrusion as invasive or violent. And still we are convinced by the linguist's argument. How does Herzog do that?

My  favorite moment of Herzog as facilitator of the profundity of other people's stories, and the greatness of their lives, comes when he interviews a man who spent years behind the iron curtain. Asked about his escape, the man is not only speechless, he becomes visibly distressed, agitated and panicked. Herzog's gentle voice reassures him he doesn't have to tell his story if he doesn't want to, and immediately the trauma evaporates. This moment touches me at some deep level, not the man's physical expression of his trauma, but in Herzog's gentle witnessing of it which, in turn, enables the filmmaker to relieve his subject's trauma, to take on its burden. It's a very powerful and deeply moving few seconds in an otherwise light film.
I haven't mentioned the incredibly natural formations of the ice in Antarctica, I haven't mentioned the breathtaking scenery, the adorable and splendorous animal and plant life in this film. In many ways, encounters with them are more fascinating than are the human kind. Because these animals and natural formation are way beyond our comprehension. Way out of our league. Everything from their behavior, through their physical appearance, their habits, and the sheer magic of their ability to survive in these harsh conditions, none of it is rationalizable. Still that doesn't stop us. There's a wonderful physicist who explains the project of collecting particles that appear in a flash that lasts something like a 100,000,000,000,000,000 of a second. He refers to these particles as so ethereal, ephemeral that they are like spirits, like God. And because we are human, we have to make every attempt to control them! Even though the scientific research and experiments on McMurdo are shown as completely eco-friendly and responsible, it's this attitude that has lead to the film's ultimate message: it's all on the way to extinction, including us!

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