Famous filmmaker Werner Herzog in conjunction with the Discovery Channel was invited by the National Science Foundation to make a documentary about Antarctica. His friend, musician, and Antarctic, underwater diver, Henry Kaiser, inspired him to do the film after Kaiser showed Herzog photographs of life underneath the glacial continent.
With the recent, Oscar-winning film March of the Penguins (2005), there's been much attention paid on life on the surface of Antarctica. Not too many people, though, pay attention to what goes on below the thousand feet of ice that are the massive blocks covering the area.
I suppose the question that remains is why should anyone, let alone many people, pay attention to life beneath what is called the "frozen sky." Strangely, Herzog himself asks that question and, for a whole section of his film, makes the argument for why there shouldn't be human interest in Antarctica.
Yet, this isn't like Morgan Spurlock's Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, the film where at the end the director defeats the initial purpose for making the documentary. No. Herzog doesn't shoot his own film in the foot.
Herzog is far too brilliant for that. Under a very clever guise, his film is not necessarily one about the land being explored but more about the human explorers. Herzog didn't want to make another cute movie about waddling, flightless birds. He didn't want it to be another pretty, Discovery Channel picture.
Obviously, the pretty, Discovery Channel-like pictures were an initial draw, but, Herzog, whether he's being metaphorical or not, focuses his sights on what's below the surface. Herzog sets the tone by first showing us McMurdo Station.
Herzog dispels any misconceptions that this movie will be your typical nature film. Not only does he introduce us to the harsh environment by pointing out the harshness up front, but the man he introduces first recounts the harshness in his life that led him here.
Herzog stayed at McMurdo Station, the U.S. Scientific base on Antarctica. No offense, but Herzog displays what a dump it is. It looks like an ugly mining town, an explosion of dirt with dark, unimaginative, square, dull obstructions. It possesses as well as is a contradiction.
Yet, it goes to the heart of what Herzog is trying to examine here. At a simple level, he asks why. Herzog must, in an instinctual way, know that examining why is also examining contradictions.
Herzog accompanies the various science teams, as they examine various aspects of the area. Herzog narrates in his heavily, German-accented, English voice. Never jerky or shaky, Herzog follows the scientists with his camera in a way that flows in and out so easily. His camera's moves and edits connect so well that it feels like the lens is Herzog's own eye, as he moves stealthily alongside these men.
The film is first person observations but is so not only to emphasize the fact that this is a personal exploration for Herzog himself. It also makes us feel like it's a personal one for the audience too. Herzog subtly makes us feel like we're out there at the end of the world.
It's in that comfortable position that Herzog allows us to discover the contradictions for ourselves. He doesn't force them down our throats.
Herzog shows us how, in Antarctica, winter is the warmest season. He shows us a working sundial at 1AM. He allows us to hear natural, animal noises that sound like 1970s electronica music. He takes us to an active volcano and stands on the edge between the coldest land and the hottest substance on Earth.
Herzog watches, as a hole is made in the ice giving access to the water below. He watches as the divers go underneath. His camera swims with them, as old and new lifeforms are opened in front of our eyes.
Herzog wonders why these scientists and environmentalists call the underwater landscape a cathedral. He muses that these divers at the South Pole, so far under the ground, are more reminiscent of astronauts so far above it.
Herzog provides us great images pitted against great choir music. He asks different questions like if there are gay penguins or even deranged ones. He can balance black-and-white photos and challenges posed a hundred years ago with futuristic ideas like the Neutrino Project.
This film is on the Academy Award shortlist for best documentary. The National Board of Review has already selected it as such. It also garnered a Spirit Award nomination.
On the DVD, there is a special feature where another famed filmmaker, Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), interviews Herzog about his work. Demme reads a letter from Roger Ebert praising Herzog. It's a dedication with which I heartily agree.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated G, Suitable for all audiences
Running Time: 1 hr. and 41 mins.