Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Documentaries of Werner Herzog: Lands of the Mind, a World of Ideas

by Drew Martin
I watched two documentaries by Werner Herzog this past weekend: Happy People – A Year in the Taiga, and Encounters at the End of the World. These films about the remote, frozen Russian wilderness, and Antarctica were not as deep as Caves of Forgotten Dreams, which is about the prehistorically painted Chauvet Cave in southern France, but still push past the commonplace into the profound. What the two films I just watched have in common is that Herzog had the inhabitants of these places to ask his questions, often from left field. In Caves, Herzog could only speculate what the early humans were thinking. Herzog’s view of nature is not through a National Geographic lens. It is more of a vision of humans, not in idealistic harmony with their surroundings, nor competing against it with Survivor tricks, but as characters defined by their environments in a humbling way.

Of course, with narrated introductory lines such as "We flew into the unknown, a seemingly endless void," he sets the stage for productions that force you to see things his way.

The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, were different. I told them I kept wondering why is it that human beings put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity? And why do they saddle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy? And why is it the certain species of ants keep flocks of plant lice as slaves to milk them for droplets of sugar? I asked them why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilize inferior creatures? He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset. Despite my odd questions, I found myself landing on the ice runway at McMurdo.

Not to disappoint, penguins do make the final cut but only so Herzog can ask a biologist studying them if there are gay penguins and whether or not they ever go insane. This is followed by a scene of a wayward penguin who neither sets off to feed in the ocean nor returns to the colony. Instead, the lone penguin runs towards a predicted death in the interior of Antarctica.  With Herzog’s questions about deranged penguins, the fatal disorientation is played as not only suicide but as contempt for penguin society, not unlike a distaste Herzog often expresses about modern society.

Click here to watch the trailer for Happy People – A Year in the Taiga (2010)
Click here to watch the trailer for Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
Click here to watch the trailer for Caves of Forgotten Dreams (2010)