Michael Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia would make a good companion piece to Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog’s documentary looked at the lives of American scientists in Antarctica, while Marczak’s film follows the day-to-day routines of six Russian soldiers at an outpost on their country’s northernmost border. Even without Herzog’s existential musings, At the Edge of Russia paints a bleak and depressing portrait of human activity. At least in Antarctica the scientists were actively adding to human knowledge. For the Russian soldiers in the Arctic, their mission is without cause. They train and drill and go on patrol, but it’s obvious that nothing they are doing is very important. A title card eventually tells us what we expected all along: The outpost, built in the 1950s to protect Russia from northern invaders, has never seen any action and likely never will. The only real danger any of these men face is the weather.
Encounters At The End Of The World (#1–10 of 6)
As with all things worth their share of time, recent responsibilities in the turbidity of life have prompted me to consider where my interests lie, a question that inevitably manifested itself in my own cinematic curiosities. These thoughts concerned the authenticity of cinema, on what filmmakers attempt to show, and what we as viewers are and aren’t interested in—heavy but critical questions asked last year by the closing season of The Wire. In fact, I’d credit that series’ meticulous depiction of a massive range of personnel and creator David Simon’s modus operandi of “stealing life” for sparking the theme of this piece: What movies have gotten my profession right?
I am a research scientist, a walk of life whose cinematic counterparts are relegated to a few stale options. We are either a) adequately described with a single adjective, b) contracted by the government or some other institution to explore the unknown, c) create monsters, or d) miniaturize our children and, in the sequel, ourselves. Science and scientists are frequently used as means to explore the fantastical, which is not a criticism but an observation that filmmakers are not interested in the scientists, only the plot points their escapades help reach (or incidentally the plot holes they help cover). Just a handful of films seem to be interested in the lives of people at all. I began to wonder why it is that few seem to be interested in what I value—cinematic form, an organized directorial sensibility and authentic texture, to list a couple—and if what I value in any way reflects what is indeed valuable. Years ago, Robert Altman referred to cinema as the great enabler that allowed us to live many lives. Today we go to the movies to escape.
But I digress. In compiling this list (unranked) I was not interested in the accuracy or validity of the scientific concepts presented, but rather the authenticity of the relationship between scientists and their work. This was admittedly challenging, and surprisingly so, considering cinema’s entirely capable reach. Naturally I don’t presume to speak for the entire community, but trust that the details of our work life and our inquisitive vigor cross fields of study.
Ed Howard: In the introduction to Herzog On Herzog, a book of interviews conducted with German director Werner Herzog, the interviewer Paul Cronin writes about the curious weaving of mythology, exaggeration and legend surrounding his subject: the “astonishing” variety of “false rumours and downright lies disseminated about the man and his films.” It’s true; there are few directors who have gathered such an outlandish body of stories and wild myths around themselves. It’s not at all clear, however, why this is so, because there are few directors less in need of such legends than Herzog. In his case, the truth is strange enough, big enough, that there is no need to print the legend. So while Herzog may not have, as the story goes, directed the notoriously psychotic Klaus Kinski at gunpoint, he did threaten to shoot the actor if he tried to leave the set, and cheerfully admits that he once plotted to blow up Kinski’s house. He also made a potentially fatal trip to an island where a live volcano was on the verge of exploding, just to make a film (La Soufriére) about the nearly deserted and dangerous locale. This is a man who has had an entire steamship hauled up the side of a mountain in the middle of the Amazon rain forest (for Fitzcarraldo, of course). This is a man who was shot, on camera, in the middle of a BBC interview, and barely flinched. This is a man who made his first films with stolen cameras and stock, who has been jailed in several African countries, who cooked and ate his own shoe to satisfy a bet with the young documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.
Obviously, there is no need for exaggeration here, no need for legends. The unvarnished reality of Werner Herzog is already the stuff of myth, and it’s this outsized persona, this raw physicality, that runs like raging rapids through his prolific, sprawling filmography. His films are not the work of a daredevil or a madman, as is sometimes said, but they indubitably reflect his unique sensibility, his skewed way of looking at the world. He is drawn, again and again, to similar kinds of stories, to similar kinds of heroes, whether he finds them in the real world or creates them entirely in his fertile imagination. Indeed, there are few directors who have transitioned so fluidly back and forth between fiction features and documentaries: the two forms as essentially the same for Herzog, who never creates fiction wholly devoid of fact or a documentary wholly devoid of fiction. The Herzogian hero might be based on a historical figure, or might be wholly imaginary, or might be a real person subtly guided and shaped by Herzog’s aesthetic, but it’s fairly certain that he (it is almost always a “he”) will be at odds with the world, driven by mysterious and powerful inner motivations, possessed by strange ideas, and living outside of ordinary human society.
Herzog’s world is harsh and cruel, dominated by a violent natural order in which humanity’s place is precarious at best. His films are thus characterized by instability, by extreme emotions and actions, by desperation and suffering. There are few filmmakers who have nourished such a consistent oeuvre while tackling such a broad range of subjects and styles. Whatever Herzog’s subject, whatever the story he’s telling, it’s his sensibility that’s always at the center. During the course of this conversation, we’ll be exploring that sensibility in some depth, but for now I’ll just ask you: what do you see as the salient characteristics of Herzog’s cinema?
In case you weren’t paying attention, given Sally Hawkins’s egregious snub and all, Werner Herzog is now an Oscar nominee—and not a moment too soon. Now it remains to be seen if an adventurous cameramen will pick out the maverick director out of the Oscar crowd and lock on to the man’s eternally and blissfully blazed face—assuming, that is, Herzog even shows up. We can’t imagine Herzog expects to win this one, even if he probably has the vote of every academy member who counts Aguirre, Wrath of God as one of their favorite movies. On paper, the excellent Katrina doc Trouble the Water screams a winner, but this enraged examination of social injustice is possibly headier than even Encounters at the End of the World. Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s acclaimed The Betrayal and Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s The Garden bring to mind past winners in this category, but this one seems like a knockout punch for Man on Wire, especially with Standard Operating Procedure out of the running. As big a crowd-pleaser as Slumdog Millionaire, Man on Wire has won almost as many awards since the start of the Oscar season, connecting with people first as a thrilling exaltation of high-wire artiste Philippe Petit’s chutzpah, then as a memorial to the similarly superhuman daring responsible for building the stage the man walked across on the morning of August 7th, 1974.
Will Win: Man on Wire
Should Win: Encounters at the End of the World
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.
To state the ludicrously obvious, I have nothing in common with Werner Herzog: he risks death against exploding volcanoes and hostile Amazon tribes, while I sit in a tiny windowless room and type away, carefully avoiding anything more dangerous than an Internet flame war. But he makes me happier than just about any working filmmaker, even when his movies are nearly indigestible: there’s something about his complete confidence in his own views that makes me wonder, at least for a blissful moment, what all the fuss about moral relativism is. Like Balzac or Lars von Trier, he’s the final authority on the world around him, even when it’s a self-created one. Encounters at the End of the World picks up where 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder left off: under Arctic ice, cameras exploring the dirty Styrofoam-ish underside of the normally picture-pristine continent. The Wild Blue Yonder was essentially a garbled compilation doc, taking footage of Antarctica and outer space and imposing a half-assed sci-fi framework on them. Encounters begins with Herzog arriving on the continent to get his own damn footage.
The 34th Seattle International Film Festival gets underway this Thursday, May 22. The press screenings, however, commence nearly a month before. For this first dispatch, I’ve set out to record my day-to-day impressions of what I was seeing, witnessing, experiencing on screen.