It might not be maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog chanting "drill, baby, drill," but a scene of marine biologists frenziedly reaming the ice-layer above the Ross Sea, using something like a 16-foot-long auger, is certainly emblematic of Herzog's audacious career. This astounding scene, fraught with tension, wonder and mystery, sums up a view of the rapturous absurdity of human life often found in Herzog's films. Who are these wild people violently thrusting into Mother Nature with an unquenchable need to understand something they'll never get? And who is Werner Herzog to coolly bulldoze us into the ice with beautiful scenes and dangerous ideas so stunning we might never fully grasp them either?
Herzog was so entranced by the underwater photography of his friend Henry Kaiser - shots taken under the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, that he set out to discover just what was going on in the true 'land down under.' Herzog wondered; "who were the people I was going to meet ... at the end of the world? What were their dreams?" In his own fashion - by the seat of his pants if you will, no studio backing - he finds out in this documentary, combining truly stunning imagery from both above and below the ice and capricious yet thoughtful interviews of the highly educated misfits who've sort-of settled there at the bottom of the planet. The resultant documentary is one of the most engrossing, transporting ones you'll ever see. Filled with haunting images and beautiful music, it's a polar version of Koyaanisqatsi - with a sense of humor and a much more abiding attitude.
Gently prodding with camera and interview, Herzog, Kaiser and director of photography Peter Zeitlinger allow a possible thesis to manifest itself. This remotest of regions, in which the only direction you can really travel is North, might just be the locus where dreams manifest as reality, and reality as dreams; and perhaps the savagery and stillness of the landscape is the only remaining place to come to an understanding. But a possible central question is; what is the difference between needing to understand and wanting to understand? The quasi-ontological quests of those at the pole are first hinted at by Kaiser's underwater photography, where air-bubbles under ice (for instance) become psychedelic mercury lightshows, or unimaginable discs with five spindly legs stagger about like aliens. Above, in the world of frigid oxygen, Zeitlinger captures things as they might be; seals lounge in the Austral sun like rotund vacationers, while scientists become seals themselves - ears to the ice listening for other seals' unearthly calls.
Herzog initiates then furthers his own universal quest with an admixture of self-deprecation, absurdist questioning and quiet persistence. Marveling at the constant activity of McMurdo Station, (base for pretty much all human action on the continent) the director bemoans the presence of "abominations such as an aerobics studio," while briefly profiling Frosty Boy, the oddly addictive ice-cream machine. But when he and Zeitlinger team up to interview the collection of PhDs either studying ocean life or running heavy machinery, that's when the unseen comes to light. Cameras linger long after questions cease, allowing subjects time to behave unprompted, in effect becoming the selves they aren't prompted to reveal. Herzog struggles to elicit responses from a penguin biologist more accustomed to feathered friends than humans, asking like a goofy naïf about gay penguins. The priceless moment reveals as much about Herzog's bemused view of the world as it does about humankind's need to parse out our universe.
In this frozen, tragically finite space of superlatives trumping superlatives, where the sun doesn't set for five solid months, things too ridiculous to contemplate do a little frottage with conceptual thinking and discoveries that conflate science and the divine. Herzog has found those dreams, and they are unimaginable.
Disc Two contains a 66 minute segment wherein Jonathan Demme Interviews Werner Herzog. Serious film fans and scholars, as well as Herzog (or Demme) devotees will absolutely love it.