Sunday, July 27, 2008

Herzog in Antarctica

When I was 7 years old, my grandmother gave me a book for Christmas, an encyclopedia of natural history that had beautiful, full-page photographs. I loved the book, but there was one picture that terrified me. It was the tip of an iceberg--that's all, just a big chunk of ice sticking up out of the ocean. It scared me so badly because I'd had a recurring nightmare about drowning in icy water. Whenever I looked at the book I was careful to turn past that picture without letting my eye fall on it. If I really wanted to read the facing page, I'd cover the photograph with a piece of paper. In 8th grade I had a geography book with a similar photo, and even though I hadn't had the nightmare in years, the image evoked a feeling of panic and helplessness, and I did the same ritual of avoiding the page. The fear still lingers in the back of my mind, one of those low maintainence phobias that real life is very unlikely to trigger.

So, needless to say, Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World was a pretty intense experience for me, especially the long, exquisite sequences filmed under the Antarctic ice. There was a brief moment in the early part of the film when my heart started to race, and I wondered whether I would be able to stick it out. Fortunately, Herzog's unmistakable voice doing the narration was enough of a distraction to keep me in my seat--a good thing, because this film is classic Herzog, and I'd hate to have let my little hang-up deprive me of seeing it.

Humans' relationship with nature has always been a central theme--maybe the central theme--of Herzog's work; Encounters makes it the whole story. There's no lead character, just a cast of eccentrics who've each taken a unique route to the bottom of the planet. Antarctica itself is the star of the movie, and Herzog uses the scientists, wanderers and philosophers who inhabit it as vehicles to explore its essence.

Like every Herzog film I've ever seen, this one seemed in serious danger of going off the rails about halfway through. It started meandering between narrative threads, segments ended awkwardly, the narration got vague and apparently pointless. As always, my reward for hanging in there with Werner was a denouement that left me both deeply moved and thinking furiously about my place in the world. As Dave pointed out, Herzog has read his Heidegger, especially The Letter on Humanism.


Anonymous said...

Herzog is a continent in himself... Now, Herzog and Antarctica must be an intense pairing, to say the least:)
Can't wait to see the film, thanks for reminding me of it.

Mary said...

I'd love to see it too. Deep water freaks me out, so underneath the ice looks suffocating. An iceberg tip looks almost comforting though. Weird how our fears grab hold of us, eh?

Anonymous said...

I hold my breath when I'm looking at things filmed under water.

The film sounds good. Thanks for pointing it out!

BitterGrace said...

Hi, Nika--Yes, if you like Herzog, this is one not to be missed.

Mary, I think you might really like this film. Even though it's filmed in perpetual daylight, it has a very dark aesthetic somehow.

Do you really hold your breath, R? That's like jamming an imaginary brake when you're in the passenger seat of a car--our bodies try so hard to accommodate our minds!