Friday, 1 May 2009

Ein Kluges Apfelchen

I saw Werner Herzog’s new film documentary “Encounters at the end of the World” a few days ago and I have to say that once again he’s made something quite extraordinary. This is due in no small part to Herzog’s overriding attitude towards of nature in all its myriad forms. It’s no secret that Herzog has some very strong feelings about nature (listen to him on the set of Fitzgeraldo for a prime example) and these ideas infuse all of his work. In fact, the more I think about it the more I realise the central importance of nature in every Herzog film I have seen, from the veritable catalogue of wildlife in Aguirre Wrath of God including the hundreds of monkeys overrunning the raft at the end of the film to the thousands of imported rats in Nosferratu (itself the story of a super“natural” specimen), from the “feral” foundling Kaspar Hauser to the engulfing jungle in Fitzgeraldo. Even the entire cast (but one) of Heart of Glass whom Herzog famously hypnotised beforehand clearly conform to this dark fascination with nature and natural processes.

There’s a wonderful scene in the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser where the logic of human control over inanimate objects is explained to the adult “primitive” since it’s clear that he mistakenly believes that objects have free will and intelligence. Kaspar’s well-meaning benefactor devises a simple demonstration which involves throwing a small apple along a garden path. The apple bounces off into the grass and Kaspar announces that it has hidden itself. In order to demonstrate the facts more clearly the benefactor asks a friend to stand in the path of a second apple in order to stop it in its course. When this second one is thrown it skips over the feet of the friend and Kaspar pronounces the apple “ein kluges apfelchen” – a clever little apple. In this and other scenes Herzog draws our attention to the awkward and potentially destructive mismatch between our logical empirical view of the world and the naïve but nonetheless charmingly inventive interpretation of Kaspar. It’s quite clear that Herzog sides with Kaspar as do we, whilst for the most part Kaspar’s “masters” are portrayed as supercilious, arrogant, patronising fools.

Encounters at the End of the World is another film entirely, being a documentary set in the wholly different historical and geographical setting of Antarctica. The film is accompanied by a voiceover from Herzog himself, who variously describes his disgust with the brutal frontier town of McMurdo and his determination not to produce another “Disneyfication” of nature by making a film of penguins. There is, in fact, some footage of penguins and particularly a sequence about a disorientated penguin set on a suicidal course towards the interior of Antarctica. Throughout the film Herzog is wholly critical of what he calls “Disneyfication” and its tendency to anthropomorphize and romanticise nature. In the last section Herzog reminds us of some of the major themes of our journey and although he deliberately avoids climate change predictions he nonetheless concludes by making the grim prediction that on the basis of the evidence, everything points the inevitable demise of humankind’s existence. I could have done without this. Not that my view is radically different, but it seems to me that in this small but significant regard Herzog has set himself up as a kind of doomsday prophet when he would have done far better to trust that our own exegesis based on the astonishing material put before us, might compel us to arrive at a similar conclusions. However, if that conclusion is simply to say “oh well we're all fucked then” as he almost suggests, then we may as well be watching Disney films. What I feel has always set Herzog’s work apart from so many other filmmakers is his skill for presenting us with profound and instructive metaphors, of putting us outside ourselves and allowing us to glimpse another version of our reality. At their best these glimpses are never didactic and are all the more powerful for it. So if I see a deluded penguin wandering toward its certain death as a metaphor for the blind self-destructive destiny of humankind or whether I see this as an example of the kind of spirit which leads nature (and thereby us) to very occasionally discover new continents and new ways to survive, then surely I should be allowed to have my own interpretation, clever little apple or not.


Vivian Oblivion said...

This comment is relevant only to the "Disneyfication" aspect of this post since I'm not familiar with most of Herzog's work, having spent my film watching time on Weimar film (for the diss) with the occasional Fassbinder exception.

The literal "Disneyfication" of nature is taken up in great detail in Carl Hiaasen's "Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World," a short, nonfiction text by an admittedly anti-Disney Floridian (most natives to FL are anti-Disney) and Miami Herald journalist. It's a startling and insightful look at the colonial/imperialist aspects of the Disney Company, especially regarding its "Disney community" in Florida that has ravaged the ecosystem, disregarded laws (the town is beyond the US government's jurisdiction!), and sold a (false) dream of safety to numerous people who live there.

My forthcoming dissertation devotes a chapter to imperialism in Disney. Also, an article I wrote, which is pending publication, deals with Disney's colonization of history. Will post links when/if available.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Vivian,

There's a brilliant short bit about Disney here:

You have to read it from the top though otherwise you'll miss the irony a little.

Post a Comment