With films like LITTLE DIETER NEED TO FLY, MY BEST FIEND and the perennially popular GRIZZLY MAN, Werner Herzog has gone from New German Cinema pioneer to one of the most entertaining -- and accessible -- documentary filmmakers. Much of this has to do with Herzog's just-off-screen persona, his seriousness of purpose, his bone-dry sense of humor and that Teutonic deadpan that keeps you wondering whether Werner is having a bit of a laugh.
The first giggle in this gorgeously shot chronicle of Herzog's trip to Antarctica comes at the very beginning, and it's a good one. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation to travel to the huge frozen continent during the austral spring and summer (October through February) when the sun never sets, Herzog relates how he agreed to make a film but assured them he wouldn't be making MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. As if. Instead, Herzog flies into McMurdo Station -- the Foundation's research facility on Ross Island -- with a host of questions: Why do humans put on masks and feathers and conceal their identity? Why do ants keep plant lice as slaves? Why don't apes? Why do men mount horses and chase bad guys? And just what brings McMurdo's 1000 inhabitants to the edge of the world? What are they searching for? Who do they expect to meet? For his part, Herzog was inspired by his friend musician Henry Kaiser (who also composed the soundtrack) whose underwater video filled Herzog's head with a stunning vision of a polar world turned upside down -- the icy promontory above, the dark, limitless firmament below -- but what Herzog finds when he finally arrives at McMurdo is something more akin to an ugly mining town. Whatever the facility itself lacks in local color, however, is made up for by its inhabitants, a bizarre assemblage of machine operators, cosmic dreamers, philosophers and inveterate travelers whose insatiable wanderlust has taken them as far as they can go: They've reached a place where any further travel is virtually impossible; and the only frontier left is inward. After a hilarious but mandatory session of survival school, Herzog and his cameraman are able to venture forth across the frozen expanse for a series of encounters. A camp of nutritional ecologists hopes to unlock the secrets of human weight loss by studying nursing seals. A cellular biologist in New Harbor dives under the ice without a tether to study the strange -- and horribly violent -- world of tiny and seemingly intelligent protozoa (true to form, Herzog pauses to wonder whether our emergence from the primordial soup was really a panicky flight from such "horrors of the ocean"). Standing at the edge of magma spouting Mt. Erebus, Herzog joins a team of volcanologists as they gaze into the navel of the Earth, while elsewhere a team of physicists launch a huge balloon 40 km into the atmosphere as they imagine the unimaginable: neutrinos, those sub atomic particles whose secrets may unlock the mystery of creation.
All have questions, some are finding answers and some, as the choral score would suggest, are even glimpsing the divine at the edge of the void. But for all his solemnity, it's hard not to chuckle, particularly when Herzog attempts to draw out reclusive marine ecologist David Ainley, who has been studying penguin colonies for the past 20 years, by posing a typically Herzogian question: "Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins because they've had enough of their colony?" Not to Ainley's knowledge, although some have been known to consort with penguin prostitutes. Soon, however, a deranged penguin is seen racing toward his certain doom amid the crags of a mountain range. It may not be HAPPY FEET, but Herzog has made a penguin movie after all. leave a comment --Ken Fox