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By Jerry White
Whoever thought that Gilles Deleuze and the Discovery Channel would come together to tell us something about the state of modern cinema? And yet here we are, presented with Werner Herzog’s newest film, the Discovery Channel-produced Encounters at the End of the World on our screens (well, some of our screens), and here I am, with Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image in my lap.
Here’s Deleuze on Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972): “There is thus both a hallucinatory element, where the acting spirit raises itself to boundlessness in nature, and a hypnotic dimension where the spirit runs up against the limits which Nature opposes to it.” This is both preceded and followed by formulations of utterly stultifying density, which are, of course, Deleuze’s stock in trade. Nevertheless, he’s on to something here, and that something is visible even in so ostensibly conventional a work as Encounters at the End of the World. It would be easy to read this film as late, benign Herzog, a soft work from a mellowing figure, the New German Cinema made safe for American cablevision at last. I don’t think so.
Herzog travelled to Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Antarctic Artists and Writer’s Program, staying at the NSF’s McMurdo station on Ross Island. This connection reminds me somewhat of Laurie Anderson’s short video Hidden Inside Mountains (2005), commissioned for the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan, which followed closely on the heels of her 2002-03 stint as NASA’s first artist-in-residence (an experience that her performance piece The End of the Moon is directly based on). Encounters, like Hidden Inside Mountains, is an elliptical meditation on landscape made by someone who has spent a long period in the company of scientists and engineers, people whose personal formations have led them to a very different relationship with technology and nature than most artists tend to (or even can) have. While Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982) and the unbalanced, protracted fever dream that is Fitzcarraldo (1982) itself, suggest that Herzog was in well over his head in confronting the Amazon’s alien landscape, even with a wealth of engineering expertise at his disposal, there is no such comparable feeling in Encounters, which evinces a smoothness, a confidence in its technological mastery that is almost hypnotic; following the Deleuzian formulation, that sense of smoothness serves to cover over the hallucinatory elements that lie just beneath it, those elements which are thoroughly beyond its grasp.
This smoothness cannot simply be read as wisdom bred of age—indeed, what is startling in Herzog’s later films is how the most definitively Herzogian moments arise from his collaboration with experts and technicians. Encounters’ underwater footage, shot beneath the Antarctic ice (which also served as the location for the distant liquid planet in Herzog’s 2005 The Wild Blue Yonder), provides some of the film’s most indelible images. The bluish-greenish hue of the water and the gravity-defying ice-stalactites emphasize the otherworldly quality of the southernmost continent, which is only accentuated by the clinical detachment of the cinematography, shot with minimal movement and largely in extreme long shot. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that this footage was shot neither by Herzog nor his intrepid cameraman Peter Zeitlinger. (When asked at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival what it was like being underwater to shoot that material, he chuckled and said that he wasn’t qualified to do that sort of diving.) While the underwater sequences clearly descend from the hypnotic side of Herzog’s sensibility established over so many films, it also bespeaks the logistical expertise of the divers, a rigourously trained awareness of the enormous resources and skill that it takes to (briefly) master nature in order to capture it on film.
A more hallucinatory side of the film emerges as well, often via a form of oddball comedy—though with a rather hollow laugh at its centre. In one extreme long shot, while Herzog makes dryly sarcastic voiceover jokes about a certain much-loved nature documentary, a disoriented penguin marches off into the empty landscape to die —a singularly peculiar image, at once absurd and ominous, which wouldn’t be out of place in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1968) or even Aguirre, as a meditation on the way in which a harsh, unforgiving landscape can so casually destroy the bewildered beings wandering through it. Herzog works throughout the film to join the dangerous and the lovely, and clearly sees the sort of ecstatic trembling this inspires as one of the characterising elements of Antarctica. He thus has little interest in the tendency of conventional nature docs to find the gentle, the wondrous, or the exciting in open spaces.
In any event, Herzog is not only interested in open spaces. Even in the blank vastness of Antarctica, insides abound—both the natural and the manmade. Herzog spends significant time inside the McMurdo base, acquainting himself with the people who have chosen to inhabit the last continent. These include not only the requisite super-geek scientists and eccentric loners, whom Herzog treats with a combination of sympathetic attentiveness and slightly disdainful bemusement (“Her story was endless,” Herzog deadpans in voiceover as one of the inhabitants details her long life’s journey to Antarctica), but also such unexpected figures as an Eastern European refugee with painful memories of political repression which, in a seemingly uncharacteristic moment of sympathy, Herzog doesn’t push him to explore on camera (“That’s okay,” we hear Herzog quietly say offscreen as the man haltingly and reluctantly tries to put his torturous experiences into words).
Herzog’s conviction that one must travel inside if one really wants to touch upon the depthless mysteries of nature, and the place of humans within it, is crucial to his vision of Antarctica. Indeed, one of the film’s hallucinatory highlights comes when Herzog has to crawl through a set of dark, narrow tunnels that have been cut through the ice and rock—the camera as low to the ground as it can be, the soundtrack full of mumbling and huffing as everyone makes their way through the cramped passages. It’s a surprisingly resonant image, the struggle and difficulty of humanity’s basic existence as it attempts to navigate its fascinating and ultimately unconcerned habitat; and it’s a resonance that emerges not from grand allegorical imposition, but from the supposedly neutral process of observation and documentation.
This obsession with the interaction between humanity and nature, between technology and landscape, is the stuff of high Romanticism, and its inheritance is something that Herzog, good German that he is, has been decisively formed by, however sardonic his own brand of it is and however seemingly conventional its packaging. Encounters at the End of the World exemplifies how a typically pedestrian mandate such as that of the Discovery Channel can be transformed by subtle shifts in emphasis, by unexpected prolongations and ruminations and sharp, striking insights. Some TV viewers may tune in expecting more penguins; what they get instead is a portrait of people in search of the sublime.