(Photo © Robin Holland) Born in Munich in 1942, Werner Herzog grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria, where he never saw any films, television, or telephones until he was 17. The effects of this isolated childhood can be seen in many of his films, which often focus on the struggles of independent dreamers who deliberately square off against impossible circumstances. Herzog has directed more than 40 films over the course of his career, and although the subject matter varies wildly, one always senses Herzog's uncompromising persona embedded in each one like a watermark. His latest documentary, the transporting Encounters at the End of the World, is no exception. Shot at various locations throughout Antarctica, the film finds Herzog very much in his element: the extreme, inhospitable and almost otherworldly sun-drenched South Pole.
Roughly half of "Encounters" is comprised of humorous encounters with the many kindred spirits who have tumbled down to the bottom of the earth to work and live at the sprawling compound at McMurdo Sound; the other half finds Herzog reveling in the ethereal sounds of underwater seal calls and stunning footage of marine life beneath the thick ice. These elements make the film a must-see at the cinema; Film Forum is screening it for one more week.
How long were you in Antarctica to make this film? All in all seven weeks. But of course the first week you have to spend doing bureaucracy and mandatory courses in radio communication and snow mobile and survival. So we were shooting a little less than six weeks.
And how big was your crew? Two men. A cinematographer, and I did the sound and directed. Because when I applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation I let them know that we didn’t want to tap too deeply into their resources. It’s very expensive to even maintain one person for a single day down in Antarctica because all the supplies have to flown in. It’s just an enormous amount of cost involved. And I believe that James Cameron was denied to come down because he wanted to have a large crew numbering - I’m just taking a guest - some 35 people. And I have to add that there was also Henry Kaiser, the diver who is also a musician, who helped organize and produce the film. And later of course he worked on the music with David Lindley.
And you used your longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger? It’s not such a long time; I just made twelve or fourteen films with him and that’s not a very long time. Not more than ten years. I’ve had longer relationships with other cinematographers.
What is it that makes your collaboration click? There’s a certain freshness about working with him. And besides, he’s very physical so it’s very good to have him around when you go into the jungle to do a film like Rescue Dawn. He’s kind of plowing through the vines like a wild boar following the actors and it always looks like steady cam, however he never uses steady cam.
Did you have to do anything physically or mentally to prepare for the trip? Not really, though you have to be in good physical health and there are extensive checks you have to undergo, otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed down there. It’s because McMurdo cannot waste their resources on someone who arrives and is not in good health and has to be taken care of or evacuated.
How did the lack of darkness affect you? That’s the strangest thing because for five months it’s only day. You have to force yourself into a day/night rhythm. At McMurdo there are some quarters that look like college dormitories. I enforced day and night upon myself by closing the blinds, but the light outside is so penetrating, so piercing so aggressive. Because it’s the driest air on God’s wide earth and the sun is shining onto ice and snow and if you don’t wear sunglasses you are snowblind within two hours.
And I am fast asleep and all of a sudden the door opens and a shaft of brilliant white piercing light is on me and I wake up and Peter Zeitlinger walks in and it’s 2:30 in the morning. [Laughs.] And there are other odd things. When you are on the South Pole, you look in one direction and it’s north and you turn halfway around it’s still north. Any direction you look is north. And you can make your choice on what time of the day is; you step a tiny step in one direction and it’s four in the afternoon; you take a tiny step in another direction and it’s midnight. Because all the time zones are converging there and you just have to make your choice. Actually, the choice McMurdo makes for the “day and night” shift is the time zone of New Zealand, because that’s where all the big supply planes are flying in from and that somehow dictates the most elegant solution.
You’ve been known to participate very physically in the making of your films, but in this case you stopped short of diving into the Ross Sea. Was that something that you considered? Oh, I would give much if I could have done it and filmed myself. However, it is dangerous and because of that only the best of the best are allowed to dive down there. You have to remember that you have a ceiling of ice upon you and this ice is ten or twenty feet thick. But the sun is shining so intensely on it that the water under it is still illuminated. The sun penetrates through this thick layer of ice. If you get disoriented you would be dead because you wouldn’t find your exit hole. Sometimes unexpected currents sweep you away. So even the best of the best divers go down two at a time to help each other. And I have no problem delegating things to those who are much better, as much as I would have loved to film it myself.
The film simultaneously marvels at what science has been able to understand and also voices a scientific assessment that our “demise is assured.” How do you feel about that? The notion that our presence on our planet is not really sustainable doesn’t really make me nervous. When you are down there and there are places where there is a complete absence of biological life because of the cold, you get a sense of what a planet without human beings or much biological life would look like. For one thing, I believe it is just our highly technological civilization making us more vulnerable than before. And secondly, looking at the biological life on our planet, it has been a permanent series of catastrophes. We had the dinosaurs for a fairly short amount of time, and human beings came a very, very short time ago and their disappearance is fairly assured. It doesn’t make me nervous. However, I think we shouldn’t ponder all these heavy questions. You should not forget that the film also has a lot of humor; people laugh a lot and justifiably so.
True, much of it is very funny but what stuck with me most at the end are the sublime aspects of it. The latter part, where you get the sounds of the seals and the underwater footage, to me they suggest not just otherworldliness, but a divine intelligence. Do you agree? Are you trying to persuade me to become an adherent of creationism?
Not necessarily, but to me the sounds of the seals, for instance, suggests something supernatural. No, it doesn’t. It only suggests the sounds, and they are wonderful and sublime. I wouldn’t read anything God-like into it. However, creation itself, as it is, has something magnificent, and the film celebrates it, the film names it, the films shows it. And the film ends like that. And I like this notion; you do not often have a chance in a movie to show things that are of utmost beauty, and of course the music has a big part in showing a certain sacredness in what we have in front of us.
But I can give you a hint: I’ve recently gone back to Latin which I hated in school. And when I was down there I read Virgil’s Georgics. In antiquity there’s this Roman poet who writes about country life and agriculture and it’s not didactic or anything; he just names the beauty of the beehive and he names the yoke and the two oxen pulling the plow and the farmer behind it and how the field is steaming. And he just names the glory of the country and I thought, “Well, that’s a beautiful attitude. I am here on this magnificent continent and I’ll just name the glory of what I’m seeing.”
It is striking that there’s such a contrast between the natural wonders and the compound at McMurdo. And it’s filled with very intelligent people, very wonderful travelers. You see there are people of great human substance there. You would have someone driving a Caterpiller who studied philosophy and comparative literature, and he’s so curious he wants to be down there. You might find a retired judge washing the dishes in the galley.
You’re known for your fearlessness and willingness to go to extremes to make your films. Even with a bigger budget and a big crew, as in Rescue Dawn, you seemed to view the crew as something you needed to “work around.” Do you ever think that if you didn’t have these extreme circumstances, the film would be less compelling? No, no, it’s not a prerequisite to make a good movie. I’ve made films that were shot in Berlin and Wisconsin and there was nothing special about that. Of course, what I had to do for this film was reduce my crew to an absolute minimum, which should be rather encouraging for young people who want to get into filmmaking. Ultimately you can do a feature length professional film with a cinematographer and a sound guy.
And now you’re going to direct something completely different, which there was some confusion about. It was originally believed that you were directing a remake of Bad Lieutenant with Nicholas Cage, but that’s not the case? No, it’s not a remake; I wouldn’t be into that. The fascinating thing is that it’s a very dark film, a film noir, pitch dark. And Nicholas Cage really wanted to work with me. So I think this is a wonderful prospect. The story has nothing to do with the Bad Lieutenant that is in existence; it will be an entirely new and different story. And I think it could go on as some sort of series. I proposed a title that would make a clear distinction: Bad Lieutenant. And under it Port of Call: New Orleans. Should there ever be a next one it could be called Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call: Detroit. And on and on. You see, the last James Bond film is not a remake of the previous one. You have one central character, although in Bad Lieutenant it’s not the same James Bond, it’s just a rotten apple.