Werner Herzog’s new film is a documentary about workers on a scientific research base in Antarctica. It has many of the hallmarks of his previous documentary work, including stunning panoramic shots, the vaguely creepy off-camera voice that sounds like it could be enticing Hansel and Gretel to come into the gingerbread house, and, of course, an anthropological interest in the oddballs that stumble in front of his camera.
In the sections in which Herzog lets his camerawork dominate the film, the results are the kind of images which make seeing films in cinemas worthwhile. For although the location may bring to mind enormous vistas of blankness, his camera often delves below the ice, bringing to light a magical kingdom of bejewelled valleys where the tendrils of predators shift and sway in the currents like crops in a breeze.
Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between, and usually overlaid by chanting of the kind that you suspect is listed somewhere in a beginner’s guide to directing as ‘a fantastic way of making the viewer think this is a sacred moment.’
However, even with the intrusive chanting, I would have gladly sat through another half hour of underwater camerawork rather than endure the frequent interviews (or ‘encounters’) that he peppers the film with. Herzog’s point is simple: the population of the base is a mix of drifters and scientists, and people are often both. There are, occasionally, genuinely interesting people, such as the scientist who’s making his final dive on the day that Herzog films, but most of the time Herzog focuses on dullards and oddballs, who seem to have been included for no other reason than to amuse the audience at their own expense. This is an uncomfortable realisation in the cinema. These people are real, not fictional: is this the twenty-first century equivalent of a nineteenth century visit to Bedlam to laugh at the inmates? Would we find the same amusement if we met these people in real life, without Herzog’s editing hand to guide our reactions?
Herzog is, of course, not new to the display of oddballs for our entertainment, but here it feels like there’s no underlying purpose. Where Grizzly Man picked apart the aftermath of Timothy Treadwell’s death to show the folly of man’s belief that he could ever really be at one with nature, the lack of focus or of an overarching narrative here means that it’s hard to see each encounter as a chance for us to laugh and nothing more. Herzog does try to make points about our fragility as a species in relation to nature, assuring us that we’re next for mass extinction, but such pronouncements get lost in the muddle of talking heads.
On paper, the idea of Herzog travelling to a place where the magnetic poles mean compasses can’t be trusted and the perpetual sunlight makes it difficult to have any real notion of the hours passing must have been a promising one. The result however, is a strangely directionless film that only the stunning camerawork prevents being a waste of time.