As a film documentarian, Werner Herzog isn’t only a voyeur of nutcases. Yes, he’s concerned with how his obsessive subjects (the grizzly man, the televangelist, the balloonist) got to be such crazy mofos. But Herzog is even more concerned with understanding what makes HIM such a crazy mofo.
You hear it in his narration -- the steady persistence of his German-accented speech, gnawing through his script like a termite in a mighty pine, unconcerned with the fall that may await him on the other side. Herzog virtually cackles as he describes the explorers’ descent into the volcanic steam vents that dot the Antarctic wastelands he studies in “Encounters at the End of the World”: “You only have to be careful to avoid the ones containing toxic gases.” Careful the way Herzog is -- like, not.
Herzog confesses early on that he has no idea what he’s looking for when he drags his cameras and crew down to frozen McMurdo Sound. And by the time his hour and two-thirds is over, we realize he has arrived at no cogent assessment of what he has found; he has ended up with a couple dozen short documentaries and thumbnail biographies, stitched together like patches on an old hippie’s Levi’s. Take it or leave it.
So we’ll take it. We’re glad to make the acquaintance of the “professional dreamers” who have come here to analyze, to build, to escape. Through all their wonky zeal and idealistic poetry, as they calibrate gear or march forth into the snow for a blind drill with buckets on their heads, most of them show little in common except a certain maniacal gleam in their eyes. We get footage of their gardens, their ice cream, their even crazier predecessors; what we don’t get is an idea of “why we put on masks,” the question Herzog says he posed to his incredulous financial backers. Hell, I would’ve given him the money, too.
As much as the people, the place itself draws Herzog. He shows us the bare mountains, the boundless ice, the animals of the water below the ice and those of the surface; thanks to the clear, hard lens of cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, they stay in our head. Separately. If there’s a unifying principle, it’s oblique: After claiming he’s not going to entertain us with cute penguins, Herzog does make a point of introducing one particular specimen who’s on a clueless suicide mission; between that and various scientists’ speculations that nature will eventually “regulate” humanity out of existence, he manages to pull an Al Gore without clubbing any baby seals.
The DVD package of “Encounters at the End of the World” owns major advantages over the theatrical release. With Herzog’s camera darting in so many directions, you’re likely to feel that the feature film’s nature footage was just a tease, but you get satisfaction here with two wordless mini-docs, the 11-minute “Over the Ice” and the 36-minute “Under the Ice.” The latter’s spooky undersea stalactites, sci-fi spider stars and nebulously blooming jellyfish really massage the optic nerves, especially accompanied by the pinging and howling electric guitars of Henry Kaiser, who’s a diver and undersea photographer as well as a boundless musician. Kaiser, David Lindley and others contributed appropriately frontierlike acoustic slide and dobro to the main film’s soundtrack, which also contains awestruck choir recordings of a kind much loved by Herzog.
There’s also quite a load of Herzog himself, who appears in three more docs, including an hour interview with Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”). Though Demme is irritating and wears out his lips with osculations of the Herzog posterior, we learn a lot about Herzog’s hatred of teachers, his hatred of Germans (he prefers to be called a Bavarian), and his love of cinema, especially his own. He’s established his own brand of genius, so he gets dispensation for the ego trips, and this Friday’s UCLA talk should be a good ride. Most important is the opportunity to scope out that determined face and look into those scarily squinting peepers. Remember the gleam in those Antarctic immigrants’ eyes? Same gleam.
* * *
UCLA Live presents Werner Herzog interviewed by the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber at Royce Hall this Friday, Feb. 20; tickets are available through www.uclalive.org.