Three Documentary Films

Encounters at the End of the World

(Written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog)

Werner Herzog’s documentary of his trip to Antarctica is emphatically in color and driven by curiosity and fascination with the new—particularly if it’s beautiful, weird or, in the case of people, eccentric. Herzog himself is present almost entirely as voiceover, commenting on the people and scenes he shows us.

Antarctica both is and is not what it used to be. McMurdo Station, the American research base, is a collection of military-barracks-style buildings set amid mud and vestiges of snow. Getting out of McMurdo, as Herzog says, isn’t easy—he has to wait for permission (the weather has to be right) and take a survival course.

In the meantime, the people he finds to talk to—those with the less glamorous indoor jobs—are philosophers all. There’s the young kitchen worker who shows off the ice-cream dispenser—people are very unhappy when it doesn’t work—and says everyone is there because a certain type of person just naturally falls down to the bottom of the globe. A plumber in his workshop proudly shows off his oddly-shaped hands, proof of his descent from Aztec and Inca royalty.

When Herzog does get out, he focuses on fire and water—domains that still offer opportunities for the death-defying exploration we associate with Antarctica—and contradictions. A biologist who takes his last dive during the filming talks about the brutal creature-eat-creature world underwater, but what we see through the photographer-diver’s lens is beautiful or eerie: Solitary, gelatinous creatures—a complex, multi-hued jellyfish and a large, floating oval like some kind of sea cucumber. A long, monochrome tunnel of still water, its gently sloping floor dotted with large furry clams.

The water is defined by the ice above it: arcing over, extending like white stalactites into the aquamarine. The divers plunge in through a small hole, and Herzog reminds us that, choosing to swim away from it without tethers, they must find their way back or die.

The volcanologists he follows down into an active crater risk death, too, and not just from a sudden eruption. The trick in exploring nearby tunnels created by volcanic activity, Herzog says drily, is to choose one that’s not full of lethal gases.

In such pursuits, Antarctica remains what it was in Shackleton’s time. Back at McMurdo, we are reminded of this glorious and melancholy history when Herzog takes us into Shackleton’s base hut—perfectly preserved down to the stacked tins of stewed mutton that remind Herzog of a defunct supermarket.

Outside, we finally meet a penguin (Herzog has vowed his film will not be about those cute creatures). This one has taken a wrong turn. Instead of heading for the open sea with the others, it’s veered off toward the mountains and certain death. The rule at McMurdo is not to interfere with the animals, so the men just watch as the penguin hurries by.

With its focus on exploration and apparently chance encounters, Herzog’s film contrasts strongly with Patti Smith and Man on Wire. Yet shots of seals, torpid on land, zipping through the water, reminded me of Petit on his wire—both most alive in their element. Petit went where no man had gone before and none would or can again. He was like the divers, too—free-floating with the aid of technology, and in his freedom risking death.

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3 Responses to “Three Documentary Films”

  1. seriouspop Says:

    Bravo, Signe. If you can believe it, I haven’t yet seen ANY of the three. I will now. Check out my new blog. -Jerry

  2. pattismithdreamoflife Says:


  3. Bill Pearlman Says:

    Well done. I saw the Smith and Wire, but not from such a thorough perspective. And the reminders of the fate of the Towers one senses in the Wire film, probably have a peculiar resonance for New Yorkers, The context of risk in all the films interests me, and makes the threesome fit in some strong way.

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