As Joaquin Phoenix noted after he was in an automobile accident a couple of years ago and Werner Herzog suddenly appeared and comforted him and then just as suddenly was gone, speaking to the legendary German filmmaker is like speaking to God. A crazy and pessimistic God, perhaps, but one capable of such divine films as Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes|Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Stroszek (1976), and Fitzcarraldo (1982), to name a few.
But the voice on the other end of the phone, though unmistakably that of Herzog, sounds downright jolly. Perhaps his renewed productivity and critical and commercial success with Grizzly Man (2005) and Rescue Dawn (2006) have filled him with dour delight. Or perhaps he realizes that after shooting his exuberant and weird new documentary in Antarctica, he’s accomplished something no filmmaker has ever done.
With Encounters At The End Of The World, you’re the first filmmaker to shoot on all seven continents.
I have to stop you right there, because this is kind of embarrassing. [Laughs.] I do not want to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records.
I see this was never a goal of yours.
No, no, of course not, but there’s also something significant about it. Early in the film, there’s a Caterpillar driver, and he comes from Bulgaria, and he has graduated in philosophy and comparative literature, and he says something very beautiful, he talks about his childhood and how he started to venture out into the world. His grandmother read the Odyssey to him when he was a child, and about the Argonauts, and he said, “In my mind, I started to travel and explore, and in that moment I fell in love with the world.” And I thought, “My goodness, that’s exactly what I have done in many of my films.” I ventured out, just being in love with the world.
Even though you’ve vowed not to make a movie about penguins, the penguins do make an appearance.
They do, yes. I swore to everyone I’m not going to do another film about fluffy penguins. However the penguins I filmed were so good, I had to include them in the movie.
Do you discourage reading metaphors into images such as the disoriented penguin or the people in survival training with buckets on their heads?
I think that it’s not a big metaphor — let’s face it, when you see the film as an audience, with the people with buckets over their heads in order to simulate a white-out, it’s absolutely hilarious. And I saw a screening last night here in New York, and people laughed harder than in an Eddie Murphy movie. That’s what I like about the film, and we should not overload it with lots of meanings. Of course, the penguin is strange, a deranged, almost insane penguin that is marching straight into the interior of the continent. No one can stop him. It’s very strange, and of course kind of sad to see him like that. But I personally do not read too much into it. A disoriented or deranged penguin is a deranged penguin and nothing else.
This film seems a bit rosier than Grizzly Man a few years back. Have you become a more mellow person since then?
No, no, it’s just the subject I’m dealing with. With Grizzly Man, it’s not that I invented the story. I relied heavily on incredible footage that Timothy Treadwell shot, and of course we know he was killed and eaten by a bear together with his girlfriend, so it’s a very tragic story. But when you do a film in Antarctica and all this joy of being down there and being allowed to set your foot on this continent and exploring the incredible beauty of this place, that, of course, will translate into a different general mood.
Is it all true? What is the difference between a non-fiction documentary film and a fiction film?
No, it’s all movies. And all my documentaries — put it in quotes please, all my “documentaries” — are somehow secret feature films anyway. I stylize, I stage, I invent. For example, in Encounters at the End of the World, I just declare some things that we are seeing as pure science fiction. And all of a sudden you see the science fiction in it, as if it were not of our planet. For example, these endless tunnels carved right under the South Pole, into the ice, deep underground, 70 degrees below zero, and at the end of one of these tunnels, under the mathematically true South Pole, someone, a maintenance worker apparently, has dug some sort of a shrine into the ice and stashed away a deep-frozen sturgeon. So how strange can it get? You can’t invent something like this.
What does it mean?
I think we should not ask. I actually know what happened, and why the sturgeon was stolen, and why it was put there, but if I start to explain it, all the image will lose its mystery and its beauty.