Artforum, March 2008

The March issue of Artforum contains a short text on Werner Herzog, in particular his new film on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World (pp. 117-118). The text was and should be titled Encounters in End Time, but Artforum changed this to the cringeworthy Truth and Beauty.

Some extracts:

"In one scene, the director tries to make a reputedly increasingly misanthropic and shy scientist relax by asking him probing questions about sexual deviancy among penguins. The bemused expert ventures that, while he knows of no gay sex, there is some evidence of threesomes and "prostitution." This all-too-human behavior leads Herzog to ask whether there are cases of mental derangement among these birds. Some penguins, it turns out, become insane and abandon their group; we see footage of one penguin who stays put as others go on their way, and who eventually waggles, alone, toward the bluish-white horizon-where, Herzog's voice tells us with a hint of barely suppressed glee, "certain death" awaits. This brings to mind various other Herzog protagonists, those played by Klaus Kinski in particular, who subordinate everything to some overriding vision and therefore act in socially unproductive ways. If anything, such "deranged" outsiders allow us to see the insanity of business as usual more clearly. [...] But in a film that repeatedly gives voice to the concern of scientists over global warming, the larger implication is that humanity itself, like the deranged penguin, is marching toward certain death.

"Indeed, although Herzog is highly critical of Al Gore's pimped-out PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Encounters takes up many of the same motifs, albeit in a more imaginative way. In what may well be one of the staged scenes that Herzog includes in his documentaries in order to go beyond what he has, speaking of cinema verité, called "superficial truth, the truth of accountants," Encounters shows a marine biologist and his colleagues watching the trailer for the 1954 film Them! on a computer monitor. In Them! natural history is out of joint, as nuclear explosions beget a race of giant monster ants. All of Herzog's sci-fi films in fact have similarities to this film-they are disaster (if not monster) movies, showing landscapes full of industrial junk or otherwise ravaged. [...]

"Media coverage of global warming often implies that the process is so radical as to be all but unstoppable, and thus it often serves to breed passivity, even when accompanied by ostensibly actionist rhetoric. This is the effect of one scene in Encounters, in which a computer screen displays a time-lapse animation of icebergs moving northward, where they will inevitably melt. The film as a whole, however, opposes such intimations of inevitability with a rich and varied rhythm, a temporality that counters linear scenarios with spiraling movements between men and penguins, between the "cathedral" under the ice and the edge of an Antarctic volcano. By proposing time as something malleable, Herzog suggests that today's unnatural natural history is still open to intervention-that there are possibilities for action in and beyond entropic end-time."

Image: Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World (2007), production still.