Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog is a man who hauled a 300 tonne tramp steamer over a South American mountain to make his film ‘Fitzcaraldo‘. In 1974, destitute and penniless, Herzog walked – he walked – from Munich to Paris to visit his friend, the ailing film critic Lotte Eisner. Werner Herzog shared a flat with Klaus Kinski and lived to tell the tale. Werner Herzog had the entire cast of his film ‘Heart Of Glass‘ perform under hypnosis. Werner Herzog saves peoples lives and vanishes into the darkness. Werner Herzog killed Ian Curtis. Werner Herzog, when shot on camera during an interview with Mark Kermode by the BBC cooly retorted ‘it was not a significant bullet‘. Now Werner Herzog has travelled to the very ends of the earth, to the frigid deserts of Antarctica to interrogate the scientists there why the penguins are going insane. Werner Herzog. We are insects in his presence. Insects.
There’s two things going on in this documentary, as well as exploring the research and science that is conducted in the harsh Antarctic wilderness Herzog is also looking at the oddballs and lunatics who occupy the frontier town of McMurdo, the unique souls who one inhabitant memorably describes as ‘people who after the world was all shook up found themselves together at the bottom’. There’s the plumber who claims he’s a descendant of the Royal Aztec family, the goatee sporting linguist (who hilariously describes himself as the only language expert on a continent without any indigenous languages) who grows tomatoes and vegetables in the Arctic, the Oxford born vulcanologist, the philosophic crane driver whose mother read him Ulysses and Homer when he was a baby. New species of animal are being discovered with every perilous glacier dive and are subsequently DNA mapped to enhance our rudimentary understanding of how life evolved on our planet (actually that shouldn’t be our planet, a point Herzog frequently elucidates), neutrino detectors are erected on enormous scientific balloons that soar to the very peaks of the planets atmosphere, an immense active volcano is cautiously probed to coax forth its geothermal mysteries.
Along with perhaps Adam Curtis and Errol Morris Herzog is for my money the greatest documentary maker operating at the moment and this is a magnificent film with a captivating beauty, the underwater photography and vistas of almost unimaginably vast ice sheets are extraordinary. Herzog makes our planet look like an alien world in this film, an apt conclusion given the themes of discovery and intellectual curiosity that resonate throughout the film, McMurdo is very much like one would imagine an off-world interplanetary forward camp on Mars or Venus would look and feel like. There is a scene with a suicidal penguin that scuttles off into the wilderness which has already entered Herzog film-lore, the scene is initially very funny and odd yet becomes quite haunting on subsequent reflection. It’s epic stuff and I could have quite happily sat through another two hours of material once it had finished. Just to conclude on a ‘bit’ of a downer the common agreement amongst the McMurdo scientists is that climate change is already irreversible and, well, we’re pretty much fucked like our mates the Dinosaurs. Great. Just to cheer you up further below is my favourite Herzog documentary ‘Lessons Of Darkness‘ which was shot amongst the blazing Kuwait old fields after the Gulf War Mark I, epic, biblical and mesmerising like all the Teutonic seers best work.