Shortly after Werner Herzog finished his first movie, a friend called him to let him know that his mentor (the great German film critic Lotte Eisner) was dying. Lotte Eisner was in Paris; Herzog was in Germany. His friend told him to catch a plane. But Herzog refused. Instead, he decided to walk to Paris, in the middle of winter, through clawing blizzards and morgue-like cold. Because he knew that Lotte wouldn’t die as long as he was walking. After days on the road, he arrived in Paris. Racked by illness, Lotte said to him, “I’m tired of life, but there’s a spell on me, that I must not die.” And Herzog said, “The spell is lifted.” Two weeks later, Lotte died.
It doesn’t matter what movies Herzog makes. He could mount a documentary about soup and still beguile you. In his latest (Encounters at the End of the World) he goes to Antarctica, “not to make another movie about penguins” (a reference to audience-friendly Oscar winner March of the Penguins) but to see Antarctica for himself. So we Antarctica through Werner Herzog’s eyes: a place where nature is fantastical, where science is akin to sorcery, where divers look “like priests” and where the sea is “a cathedral”. Herzog’s gaze is one not narrowed by television or cynicism. He’s like a nineteenth century man gasping at our century.
The central conceit of Encounters… is that Antarctica marks not only the farthest point south, but the place where our environmental apocalypse is most apparent. This irony is not the set-up for an Al Gore-style “green issues” harangue by Herzog (he’s far too Teutonic to fret about humanity); rather, Herzog looks at the world’s end and sees the eerie beauty of a house fire. His movie is like prayer – not “a prayer” (it doesn’t ask for anything) – but like prayer in that it wants us to be still, to re-look the world, to see it (if it is ending) for how unlike Western society it is. Herzog is in awe of nature the way Old Testament prophets were in awe of God; it scares him, but he leans toward it, usurped by its power, and its mystery.
Obviously there are sane, normal, ordinary people in Antarctica, but Herzog doesn’t trouble with them. He seeks out dreamers; men and women who couldn’t act normal if they tried. Like the truck driver who tells Herzog how his mother used to read The Odyssey to him. Or the woman who travelled through Africa in a sewer pipe. Herzog doesn’t question these people like a documentary-maker, he talks to them like a surrogate father, or a prodigal son. He wants to speak with people who are drunk on the world. As the truck driver says (quoting the philosopher Alan Watts): “Through our eyes the universe perceives itself… we are the witness through whom the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”
This movie is religious the way sudden snow-fall is religious; it transforms. Herzog once said that he “directs landscapes”, here, it’s as if he wants Antarctica to be a mirage. Everything we see we’re seeing for the last time. Herzog wants us to marvel at this place. There a shots of landscapes which seem impossible; they don’t belong to our world. But Herzog sees it the other way: that it’s we who don’t belong (or at least: much of the world we’ve created). Again, he isn’t interested in “green politics”, more a sense of amoral wonder. He knows we’re doomed, he sees no particular way out of our predicament… but at least he has a camera.
Herzog once said in interview, “The poet must not avert his eyes.” He was speaking after being shot in the gut by an unidentified sniper (he’d been shot while being interviewed by the BBC on a hillside in LA). Werner Herzog’s life is not like yours or mine (his is more like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). When Herzog looks at LA, or Paris, or Antarctica, he doesn’t see the expected things. That’s what makes him a great film-maker. The world leaps at him. He wants to bring us sights that show us we haven’t conquered the unknown. For Herzog, the only “end of the world” to fear is the end of life’s mystery.