Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed Encounters at the End of the World director Werner Herzog for our Director Interviews section of the Website. Encounters at the End of the World is nominated for Best Documentary.
For more than 40 years, Werner Herzog has been redrawing the map, both cinematically and geographically. He started making short films in the mid-1960s, and made an impact internationally with Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), the tale of a mad conquistador’s doomed jungle quest, the first of five collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog and Kinski’s relationship was often turbulent and violent, but the ambitious, outlandish and usually unhinged films they made together over the course of the 70s and 80s – Nosferatu (1978), Woyzeck (1978), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) – would all become classics, as would other Herzog films of the period such as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977). Herzog’s narrative features have boldly explored dark, uncharted areas of the psyche as well as the planet, and in his parallel, synergetic career as a documentary filmmaker he has tackled similar themes. His non-fiction films predominantly bear the mark of the fearless adventurer, from his early The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969) through to 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (which he remade last year as Rescue Dawn) and the recent hit Grizzly Man (2005).
Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog’s latest documentary, proves that at the age of 65 he is still undaunted by the world’s least hospitable places. The film is a typically offbeat travelogue of his visit to Antarctica, a place which fascinates him not only because of its natural phenomena (the active volcano Mount Erebus, the strange world beneath the ice) but also because of its unusual collection of inhabitants, scientists, bohemians and nomads, who have found their way to the base of the planet. The film engages with Herzog’s career-long preoccupation with man’s relationship to savage nature and is ultimately an idiosyncratic vision of the planet’s seventh continent, where the director finds a parade of people with buckets on their heads, disoriented penguins and a woman who transforms herself into human hand luggage.
Filmmaker spoke to Herzog about the genesis of his latest expedition, fainting at Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and the need for documentaries in a world filled with video games, virtual realities, the internet, Photoshop, WrestleMania and breast implants.
Filmmaker: How are you?
Herzog: I’m a bit jet lagged. I’ve come from Europe, and a few days before I flew from Los Angeles to Europe – that’s nine hours, and back six hours. It takes me some time to understand where I am, and who I am and why. [laughs]
Filmmaker: How long did it take you to get used to Antarctica, with the long flight and then constant daylight once you arrived?
Herzog: Well, jet lag doesn’t occur there because it’s on the same line of longitude as New Zealand, but it’s a long flight, almost eight hours. It’s quite a distance down there. And adapting to Antarctica, I think nobody ever will be able to fully adapt, you are only partially adapted. We are not made for understanding that there’s five months of day and never night, and then some twilight zone, and then five months of night. We are clearly not really organized for that. When you’re on the South Pole, you look in one direction and you look north. You turn around 180 degrees and you’re still looking north. Any direction you’re looking is north, and it’s a strange notion.
Filmmaker: Did you ever consider shooting during the Antarctic winter?
Herzog: No, because you couldn’t do much filming. It’s always dark, you could only do interior stuff, and it’s extremely cold. And then the population is very limited – you have the so-called “winter-overs,” but it’s maybe only 20% of the regular population of scientists, and many of them are just in maintenance. There are some scientists who love the Antarctic night, for instance astronomers who can do long-time observations, and some others who love to be there at that time for good reasons.
Filmmaker: A major focus of the film seems to be to show the people who go to Antarctica, and the reasons they travel there, rather than concentrating entirely on the nature and landscape of the place.
Herzog: In a way it started out with landscape, but I say that with necessary caution because it was all underwater footage. [It’s] a completely strange science fiction world, totally fascinating, and we have never seen anything like that on any screen, so that was what intrigued me to go there and I wanted to do diving and filming under the water. I got intrigued by the continent in a way and I wanted to go down there. I knew I would never have a chance until this diver and musician Henry Kaiser told me, “Watch out, there is an artists’ and writers’ program [run] by the National Science Program. Why don’t you apply?” Even after I applied I thought I had no chance because there are Nobel Prize winners lining up to get the chance to go there and do science but all of a sudden I find myself invited. I didn’t know if this was a good or a bad surprise because you couldn’t do any scouting. You are flown down, and six weeks later you are flown back and you have to have a movie in the can.
Filmmaker: Given those restrictions, how clear an idea did you have of what you wanted the movie to be?
Herzog: Well, I had a couple of basic places that interested me, for example, this very high active volcano, Mount Erebus. I knew I would go to a diving camp and I knew roughly who I would meet there, for example the lead biologist at this camp was a great fan of early 1950s doomsday science fiction movies and I got fascinated by him showing them to his colleagues and divers. A few things I knew in advance; I knew I would probably do something about neutrino research, but it was quite vague and I had no idea who the people were doing this. I had to be quick and look out and find people, but I’m a filmmaker and I do find the real people.
Filmmaker: You mentioned diving and the science fiction elements of Antarctica. Did you do any diving yourself?
Herzog: No, I’m not a diver but I really wanted a crash course and [to] learn quickly [laughs] and I was immediately dissuaded from it. There’s no way to do it because it’s too dangerous and only the best of the best do it. Antarctica cannot afford to waste resources in a big rescue operation. In fact, they did have fatalities – it is dangerous and it’s not to make any jokes about. I have no problem to delegate filming underwater to a really good diver.
Filmmaker: Was there any way that you could direct the divers who were filming for you?
Herzog: No, they are left alone down there. But Henry Kaiser, who shot almost all of the [underwater] footage understood that, for example, I wanted to have long takes not just five-second clips and he did it marvelously. I wanted him to go very close to certain strange creatures and he understood it and came back with fantastic footage. I owe him not only the footage under the water but lots of the music in the film. He did it together with David Lindley and it’s just very, very beautiful.
Filmmaker: The choral music in the film seems to suggest the experience of being in Antarctica is almost religious.
Herzog: Yes and it’s not only me, others understand it similarly. Some of the divers before they go under the ice speak jokingly of “going into the cathedral.” There is a strange sacrality about some of these landscapes underwater or outside. It’s very, very odd, and through this Orthodox Russian Church choir music you all of a sudden understand it and start to see it. The music allows us to see it.
Filmmaker: Although you narrate the film, we don’t really see you in Encounters.
Herzog: You do see me , but it’s from behind when I’m crawling through some ice tunnels up in the volcano. But you do not see my face. It was better [that way]. We tried to do it without any person, but it’s better to follow the curiosity of the human being. I did not want to be shown, but it was also good for the cinematographer, because I could whisper to him, “There’s a bump – watch out.”
Filmmaker: The relationship between man and nature has been one of your preoccupations, so were there ways that you wanted to explore that specifically in this film?
Herzog: In a way yes, although of course I’m not out on huge expeditions like in the old days and of course I see many of the absurdities down there. McMurdo Station is like a noisy, ugly mining town with the noise of Caterpillars, and the first thing you run into is an ATM machine. You just do not expect that.
Filmmaker: How many places are there left that you want to go and film?
Herzog: There’s enough – I’ve always been curious. In the film there’s a very nice moment where a Caterpillar driver – who actually is a philosopher and has a degree in comparative literature – speaks about how his grandmother read The Odyssey to him, about the Argonauts. He says, “That’s when I fell in love with the world,” and I thought, “That’s exactly what I’ve done in many films, falling in love with the world.” This is clearly a film where I have fallen in love with Antarctica and it’s actually my Antarctica, my love story with Antarctica. And hence there are many places I will never go. They are sending robots to Mars. It’s far too expensive and risky to send human beings but sometimes I think instead of a robot they should send a poet up there. It would be me that would volunteer, I would be the first to apply. Of course I’ll never be there, but so be it.
Filmmaker: How does Antarctica rank in terms of the most unforgiving places you’ve been to for films?
Herzog: We should be careful to avoid the clichés about Antarctica. Antarctica, the way human beings experience now in most cases is very easy. It’s easy. You have the aerobics studio and yoga classes and an ATM machine and a warm bed like in a motel or a college dorm.
Filmmaker: Do you almost wish you had been there 100 years ago when it was untamed?
Herzog: Well, that’s an interesting question. Not really, because there were very, very good films made at that time. Shackleton had 35mm film with him and they created phenomenal footage which in our spirit of today we probably could not achieve. It has a very strange beauty and I do not mind that I have not been down there 100 years ago. I’m never out to seek the difficulties in the world in any of my films, I’m a professional filmmaker. I avoid the difficulties as long as I can do that, but if they are in my path I’m not afraid to cope with it.
Filmmaker: There’s a fascinating part of the film where you have a conversation with a scientist about penguins.
Herzog: I was interested in one basic question though I knew I wouldn’t get a real full answer: “Is there such a thing as insanity or derangement among animals?” As we were in a penguin colony, [I asked] “Is there such a thing among penguins?” All of a sudden, I get very interesting answers. Not a full explanation – we’ll probably never have it – but it’s good to ask an unusual question once in a while.
Filmmaker: OK, well maybe I can ask a slightly unusual question myself now. With your direct association with the wilds of nature, isn’t it paradoxical that you live in L.A., which I think you have called the most culturally rich city in the world?
Herzog: No, not in the world, in America. With the most cultural substance. Of course it sounds provocative now sitting in New York – New Yorkers will immediately contest it. But there’s a serious side about Los Angeles beyond the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, and I’ve made a lot of films not out in wild nature. My next film is going to take place in New Orleans. I don’t see myself pinned down to films about wild nature. It appears in some of the movies, yes. When I film in the jungle in Fitzcarraldo, the jungle is just another forest. Period. It’s nothing so special.
Filmmaker: But what is it that L.A. gives you that you can’t get elsewhere?
Herzog: It’s complicated. I would need much more time than we have. There’s something very vibrant, things get done there. Things get made here in New York; much of the culture is being consumed and not so much fabricated. Of course there are painters here, but some of [the culture] was borrowed from Europe, like the opera. Los Angeles is very essentially American. I moved to Los Angeles because I married an American. I’m happily married and I enjoy to be in Los Angeles and it’s new horizons, new alliances, new subjects. I’d never have been in touch with Henry Kaiser if I hadn’t been there, or the National Science Foundation, I never would have made Grizzly Man with the Discovery Channel and Creative Differences. So it’s a very good time for me.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film, and which film was it?
Herzog: I do not cry in movies, I laugh in movies. But I do faint. I keep fainting in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the wonderful great silent film. There’s a moment where they cut the elbow vein of Joan and blood is spurting out, and that’s when I faint.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Herzog: I would cast Humphrey Bogart, the young Marlon Brando. I don’t know what film I would make – I wouldn’t want to repeat any film that was already made. I would love to venture out with some of the finest: Lillian Gish, Edward G. Robinson. They are so great that I would find it the most exciting challenge to work with them and engage them. [And] Fred Astaire. [laughs]
Filmmaker: What’s the worst (or weirdest) job you’ve ever had?
Herzog: A parking attendant at the Munich Oktoberfest where I had to deal with 3,000 drunk drivers each night.
Filmmaker: Finally, will the current interest in documentaries last, or is it just a fad?
Herzog: I believe it’s a natural concomitant of a very massive shift in our understanding of reality because we have got video games, virtual realities, the internet, Photoshop, WrestleMania, breast implants, so it’s an onslaught of new things. We as filmmakers have a huge, momentous task to redefine our sense of reality and that’s why I do Fitzcarraldo, where I move a ship over a mountain. Although it looks like a fever dream, you know it’s not a joke because it is a ship over a mountain and not a digital effect.