May 18, 2009

The Loneliness of the long distance Penguin: or Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World

Penguins go from their colonies to the sea and back again- there are a small minority however that get disorientated (or in Werner Herzog's words- deranged) and head into the distant land of Antarctica- lost on their way to certain death. These Kinski-Penguins are symbolic in a sense of Herzog's entire documentary about Antarctica- Encounters at the end of the World- they symbolise a disdain for the collective and a desire to acheive something that may not be rational but is motivated by the essense of the individualistic penguin. This documentary is about individuals whether human or bird and their quixotic and important journeys to the edges of reality: what Herzog suggests is that in these journeys into the centre of the icy continent we can find truths that may not yield themselves to us who live on the outside. He finds a generation there of misfits and never fitted in at alls- explorers who feel that their lives are ones of perpetual movement- scientists devoted in monkish splendour to the cathedral of nature and the scholastic fervour of observation.

What Herzog has here is cinematic gold. There are some amazing shots from underneath the ice- looking at the animals that dwell deep in the recesses of the earth- scarcely less beautiful are shots that go into the ice, into caverns in the mountains of antarctica where stalagtites and stalagmites hang down perfectly moulded by aeons of melting. The human interviews are as impressive- a woman who travelled through South America in a sewage pipe, a man who fled the iron curtain to come to Antarctica and travels with a canoe in his rucksack- the tale of such encounters is long and important. What Herzog can find here is incidents which are amusing and interesting- when you hear a physicist discuss neutrinos or a biologist hypothesize about the reasons that human beings left the oceans and took foot upon the land, developed from the single cell to the complex large organisms that we are or when you see the ice break down and slowly move north, bringing with it inexorable disaster to mankind, you cannot but be fascinated- and anyone who isn't is dumb to the world and insensible to its wonders.

Of course to make a film which includes such wonders is inevitable if you go to antarctica- it is whether you can weave those wonders into a whole which demonstrate your skill as a director. It is the weaving of your story that demonstrates your skill with a thread. Ultimately Herzog succeeds in this- less because his film has an obvious beggining or end (these are encounters literally and metaphorically with antarctica) than because his film has an argument. His ordering of the material does not tell a story but it tells a syntactical statement- it says something. Herzog is famous of course for believing that the universe is an orderless chaos: he regrets the passing of the blank spaces on maps- marked by here be dragons- and the ceasing of romance- he laments the passing of languages for example. But he is atuned to the fascination of science and the fascination of discovery- the scientists in this film come across as quirky but ultimately amazing people- modern saints who sacrafice their own lives possibly in the quest for truth. Herzog conveys a reality that he perceives- the reality is both depressing and ultimately as optimistic as it gets: the struggle may be pointless and end in futility (the film is filled with a sense of the mortality of the human race) but at some other level it makes sense.

Think of the penguin- our little friend marching into the vastness of antarctica, certain of death. At one level that penguin is a metaphor for us all: we are marching into oblivion. And yet on the other hand it does not matter- for the penguin has decided that oblivion shall not confine it- it shall make its own decisions no matter whether others try to redirect it. It has a radical freedom. Furthermore its struggle means something as it means something to it- why Herzog asks- why we all ask of our own lives- but they mean something, our struggles towards abstract principles mean something because the universe only means something so far as we make it mean something. That is what one of Herzog's interviewees says- he tells us that the universe only dreams through our dreams and that is as accurate as it gets. Living in a world of futility, we create meaning. Herzog himself- the good soldier of cinema- creates a meaning for his own life. Placing a sturgeon under the south pole means nothing objectively and is totally pointless, but from our subjective point of view it means something vital: as the view from nowhere is impossible and leads to a perception of absolute futility, then the view from somewhere is important. The grace of Herzog's vision is that he is able to see both the futility and the majesty- both the nowhere and the somewhere. Herzog thinks the penguin is absurd and deranged- but respects its derangement.

Deranged or not, this is a master class of cinema. Herzog is an acquired taste and his documentary is a very individualistic and philosophical piece of work, but if you can understand his ever present irony and appreciate his humour, then this is a film you must see. I have not captured the half of it- there is so much more- indeed so much so that I'm just going to go to Amazon and buy this film so that I get the first copy when it comes out as a DVD.


Anonymous said...

I am sure I would have to bring my 'long johns'...