Werner Herzog has a new documentary about the Palaeolithic cave paintings at Chauvet. When anybody asks me who my favourite artists are or which artists I most identify with, I occasionally answer that my favourite artists are the ones who painted Chauvet, Altamira, and the other European cave sites that we know of. Sometimes I’m even serious about it, so I look forward to seeing Caves of Forgotten Dreams. Jean Clotte’s Return to Chauvet Cave is a thorough, big and beautiful book about the place, if you’re at all interested. I’m not wild about Herzog as a narrative film director, but I love him as a documentarian and I recently watched his film about human presence and intervention in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. Both of these things inspired me to write a little something about this magnificently miserable old bastard.
Herzog as usual both shoots and narrates Encounters at the End of the World, which is one of the many things I find appealing about his documentary work. His observations are great and incredibly insightful, but to me he always sounds like somebody doing a bad and borderline xenophobic (but hilarious) parody of a German, despite the fact that he’s a genuine German. I could listen to him talk all day, even if he was just moaning about his electricity bill which I’m sure he does frequently when he’s not moaning about something else. He manages to get some serious complaining done early on in the film, castigating the ugliness of McMurdo Station, objecting to the beautiful blue skies and sunshine, deploring the presence in Antarctica of aerobic and yoga classes as “abominations” and absolutely refusing to film penguins. Nonetheless, although Herzog really is a miserable old bastard, he’s not just a miserable old bastard.
One of his earlier films, Grizzly Man, took as its subject the life and death of a man called Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell regularly trekked up to Alaska with the intention of living with grizzly bears. He taped absolutely everything whenever he was out there, documenting his apparent thesis that these 350kg, aggressive and territorial animals were really just big fuzzy humans who didn’t speak English very well. His mania for documentation even encompassed his own horrific and tragic but fairly predictable final moments. He was killed by one of the bears, while the camera still rolled blindly in the tent where he and his girlfriend had been sleeping until the bear dragged them out and ate them alive. Looking at Treadwell’s happier footage and knowing a bit about Herzog, one can imagine that Herzog thought as I did (and as other people interviewed in the film clearly did) that Treadwell may not have been diagnosably mentally ill but he was definitely several sandwiches short of a pic-er-nic basket. His “reports” on the bears reveal an intensely irritating, naïve and egocentric man whose look could be described with the appropriately German backpfeifengesicht (“slap-in-the-face face”, i.e. a face that needs a slap). Treadwell himself occasionally acknowledged that even some of the bears obviously found him annoying and resented his shrill, disruptive presence. Nobody deserves to die just for being an aggravating prick, especially not when that death involves the teeth and claws of a starving bear, but I still think it would have been hard to have much sympathy for Treadwell when he was alive.
Despite all this, Herzog demonstrates great humanity and empathy in this film. There’s one scene in particular where Herzog interviews a friend of Treadwell’s. It seems that she was one of the only people who cared enough about Treadwell to try keeping him grounded in reality instead of facilitating his floating away to the magic teddy bear nature-is-love fantasy world that would eventually get him killed. She tells Herzog that she’d like to get some kind of closure by listening to the tapes of Treadwell’s dying screams. Herzog immediately and fiercely refuses, furthermore extracting a promise from her that she will never try to get access to them or listen to them. Herzog is also classy and clever enough to leave us in no doubt about what happened to Treadwell without being so crass as to shove the death tape in our faces or make it the most important thing in the film.
This is a great artist demonstrating great compassion. He never states it overtly, but in that conversation with Treadwell’s friend, Herzog is saying: “I’ve stared into that abyss, I’ve wallowed in that horror, expressly so that people like you don’t have to. See and hear it through me. That’s more than enough.” This is what great artists do, they go to the darkness and bring back what everyone else needs. It’s what the Chauvet artists did all those tens of thousands of years ago, in their case not just in a manner of speaking but literally as well. This is how a truly civilised human being acts towards other human beings. I think I fell in love a little bit with Werner when I saw this part of the film.
In fact I think it’s a mark of his genius that he has such an abiding, perverse affection for and connection to people who most of us would find difficult to love, especially people Herzog himself evidently finds revolting or absurd. Treadwell is one example, and there are several individuals akin to him in Encounters. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be funny— probably not— but on several occasions Herzog’s interviewees launch into some new age stupidity or rambling monologue about how interesting their life is and Herzog promptly narrates over the top of them, summarising the drivel that he had to sit and listen to before rapidly cutting them off and moving on to something more interesting, like a jellyfish drifting mindlessly under an iceberg. These people wilfully refuse the realities and responsibilities of normal human contact. They’re probably not greatly missed by the society from which they’ve fled. Herzog’s erstwhile muse, star and tormentor Klaus Kinski is an extreme example. Kinski was a five star mentalist in the habit of attacking fellow actors with swords, shooting peoples’ fingers off, or throwing violent tantrums that lasted for days. During the making of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Kinski and Herzog sometimes aired their artistic differences at gunpoint. Herzog’s truly love-hate relationship with Kinski is summed up very well in the title of Herzog’s film about their partnership: My Best Fiend.
Herzog does finally film some penguins, but this is mainly so he can grill a taciturn and notoriously antisocial zoologist about gay penguins, penguin prostitution and the persistent minority of penguins who go completely mad.
These birds refuse the comfort of the colony and turn away from the sea that feeds them, waddling off instead towards the mountains where they will certainly die a lonely death in the near future. Herzog has seen these birds with his own eyes (and camera) and he expresses regret that it’s futile to redirect them or otherwise try to intervene in this protracted penguin suicide. When they’re free to do what they want again, they embark once more towards the white nothingness of Antarctica’s centre.
The zoologist is clearly not at all imaginative and he seems oblivious to Herzog’s implication that he and many of the other people who make their way to Antarctica and stay there are quite clearly just the human versions of these penguins. They may look like they have a purpose, but what they’re really doing is annihilating themselves, or perhaps more accurately annihilating their selves. It comes across very forcefully in this film and in others by Herzog that where some people are concerned, no amount of pushing can turn them around.