The new documentary from the eccentric German director Werner Herzog, “Encounters at the End of the World,” is not your typical nature film. Invited by the National Science Foundation to explore Antarctica, Herzog brought just one cameraman and a list of unusual questions. Can penguins go insane?
On a recent morning in a civilized Manhattan hotel, Herzog, 65, discussed his findings:
Q. At first glimpse, the film looks like a nature documentary, but it’s clearly not. How would you describe it?
A. I just made it, and it’s out there. It’s very beautiful and very funny as well. It has good elements of a comedy. So let’s label it a comedy.
Q. You ask some very funny questions in the film. Did you get any answers?
A. It doesn’t really matter whether I get a full scientific answer whether there is some such thing as insanity among animals ... But posing the question is something that for all of us opens up fascinating new perspectives.
Q. You’ve spoken in the past of trying to find an “ecstatic truth” in your films.
A. I’m saying it normally to make a point that facts themselves do not constitute much of truth. ... The book of books in that case would be the Manhattan phone directory: 4 ½ million correct entries. Yes, everything is correct, everything is fact, but does it give you any illumination, anything deeper?
Q. Your 1993 documentary, “Bells From the Deep,” raised controversy when you revealed that some scenes were staged. Are there any staged scenes in this film?
A. Not really, because it’s a different type of film. However, the film sometimes has a common borderline with science fiction. For example, these endless tunnels carved under the South Pole ... and at the end of one of these tunnels, someone carved a shrine into the ice and put a deep frozen sturgeon into it! You just can’t invent it.
Q. The National Science Foundation is hoping your movie will be “useful in classrooms and other educational forums.”
A. Maybe not in a science class but in a general class, or maybe a poetry class.
Every few years, audiences rediscover Herzog’s uncompromising cinematic visions. Here are five essential films:
AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD (1972): The quintessential Herzog movie, with Klaus Kinski as a mad conquistador.
STROZEK (1977): Slice-of-life drama starring Bruno S., a mentally unstable, nonprofessional actor.
WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE (1980): Literally, with garlic, in Les Blank’s short film.
FITZCARRALDO (1982): Kinski again, heading an army of Peruvian workers hauling a steamship up a mountain. No special effects: Herzog and his crew actually did it.
GRIZZLY MAN (2005): True story of Timothy Treadwell, a nature lover who fatally forgot that bears will eat you.