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No ‘fluffy penguins’ for Werner Herzog

The filmmaker's latest expedition is to Antarctica for the new documentary “Encounters at the End of the World.”
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Werner Herzog stood at the South Pole, he had the odd sensation of knowing every direction was north. Whichever way he stepped was a different time zone: 2 p.m. to the left, 3 a.m. to the right.

Likewise, Herzog has for decades been dipping into different times and different worlds. But the 65-year-old filmmaker doesn’t merely tiptoe across borders, he leads film productions where they wouldn’t normally go: the Peruvian rain forest, the Alaskan plains, the Laos jungle.

Herzog’s latest expedition is to Antarctica for the new documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” for which he went seeking something besides, as he narrates, “fluffy penguins.”

As ever, Herzog is interested in the meeting of man and nature. The 65-year-old German-born filmmaker documents the “ugly mining town” of McMurdo Station and the odd dreamers who have ended up at the bottom of the world.

He was first drawn to the project after being captivated by underwater footage — which he used in his 2005 “The Wild Blue Yonder” — of a diver beneath the Antarctic ice: a science fiction-like landscape he compares to “a fever dream of an alien.”

Herzog’s belief in a raw style of filmmaking has kept his classic films like 1982’s “Fitzcarraldo” (in which he literally had a steamboat carried over a small mountain) and 1972’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” vibrant decades later. Always vacillating between documentaries and fiction films, he touts an approach he calls the “ecstasy of truth” that isn’t based on facts or realism, but an “innate sense of searching for something deeper.”

The director has recently been discovered by a new generation of moviegoers thanks to the success of 2005’s “Grizzly Man” and last year’s “Rescue Dawn.” He’ll soon begin production on a re-imagining of “Bad Lieutenant,” Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film that starred Harvey Keitel.

AP: It’s easy to characterize this film as you reaching some kind of end point. Do you agree?

Herzog: What I mind is this kind of absurd race: who was going to be the first one on the South Pole. Culturally speaking, in my opinion, it ended all notion of human adventure. That was the end of it.

AP: You wouldn’t characterize anything you’ve done as an adventure?

Herzog: No, I’m a professional person. Adventure belongs to a different age. It died out in the early or mid-19th century, and that was a time where men would meet in pistol duels at dawn and where damsels would faint on a couch. That’s a time where adventure was a legitimate thing. It’s over now. Whoever declares himself an adventurer I find highly suspicious and I would not like to be friends with these people.

AP: The Guinness Book of Records seekers.

Herzog: Yes. There’s a man who will seriously attempt to hop into the South Pole on a pogo stick. It has become very absurd. Although as I have fallen in love with the world, I work in different countries and I have stories that take place in the jungle in Peru, in Alaska among grizzly bears — you just name it. In Australia with Aborigines.

AP: Having had such experiences must give you some satisfaction.

Herzog: It has always been related to the stories that I invented. Of course, you can question, now, why do I invent a story that has to be filmed in the Amazon jungle of Peru and moving a ship over a mountain? So, yes, you may question that I don’t have a real answer, but I have a suspicion that I was just very curious to be out there. And I would be very curious, for example, now they have landed a robot on Mars. What a phenomenal achievement that is. If there were human beings up there one day and if I’m still alive, I would love to go there with a camera.

AP: Someone in “Encounters” describes humans as a witness for the universe, which experiences its glory through our eyes and ears.

Herzog: The man who says it is actually a Caterpillar (tractor) driver, but he’s from Bulgaria and he studied philosophy and comparative literature. This man, in a way, sets the tone for the film. He says, “I fell in love with the world.” And all of a sudden, it struck me: Yes, that’s all that has carried me through all of my films. All of sudden, it’s more clear than in any of my movies — this kind of falling in love with the world.

AP: Your friend the documentarian Errol Morris referred to your work as an “extended essay on the meaning of meaninglessness,” a description that sounds humorless. But you and your films are often funny.

Herzog: If you think I’m this kind of Teutonic, driven brooder, not so! It’s a great joy to watch a film with such warmth and humor in it like “Encounters at the End of the World.”

AP: In the 1980 short film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,” you say that filmmaking turns you into a clown, like it did Orson Welles.

Herzog: That’s a danger to whoever makes films over long periods of time, as we are illusionists and work on something ultimately immaterial and that is a projection of light on the screen. So you have to watch out that you are not completely immersed in it and lose yourself. Film history is full of very, very good ones who lost themselves too deeply into it. I find it healthy to travel on foot, for example, or raise children or cook or whatever.

AP: You also parodied yourself in the 2004 mockumentary “Incident at Loch Ness.”

Herzog: Of course (writer-director Zak Penn) is playing with a wild image that’s circulating out there. It does good to me to have some self-irony once in a while. Yes, of course, it’s a hoax upon a hoax upon a hoax.

AP: In Les Blank’s 1982 documentary, “Burden of Dreams,” about the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” you say that you’d be a man without dreams if you didn’t finish the film. What are your dreams now?

Herzog: Well my problem always has been — and particularly now is visible again — whenever I finish a film, there are so many others now pushing and invading. It’s like home invasion. I’ve never been able to keep up with everything that is invading me. I’ve never planned a career. I’ve never looked among the best-selling books for what I should convert into a movie.