After the execrable Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog has come back with hat in hand, forgiven and fully redeemed. While not the masterpiece of Grizzly Man, the psychotic Kraut’s latest documentary is a thrilling ride nonetheless, as he visits the no man’s land of Antarctica with his usual obsessions and pet theories. As always, Herzog narrates the proceedings with his wry tone and heady revelations, and while he can often come across as a bit nutty, he’s surprisingly matter-of-fact most of the time, letting the scientists and adventurers of the region speak for themselves. And yes, quite a bit of data and research appear onscreen, though not to the point of alienating the layman. After all, it’s less about “the facts” anyway, as Herzog is not using this film to promote a political agenda or environmental conversion (as much as the evidence of global warming was on display), but rather to signal the death knell of exploration as a testing ground for man’s self-worth. Once the frozen continent was discovered and “conquered” (always a relative concept given its vastness), the final frontier was lost forever, a line of demarcation as vital and unsettling as the closing of the American West. Now, as Herzog laments again and again, mankind is reduced to pushing boundaries only in terms of their effect on the record books or media coverage. That’s not to say that ego and greed didn’t drive the explorers of old, but even then, it still seemed as if man had something left to prove.
As expected, the photography is stunning and appropriately humbling, as vast stretches of both ice and ocean lay before us with eerie silence. And yet, a small community has been established; a veritable university of loners, eccentrics, and vagabonds looking for something just shy of normal. Important work is being conducted here, but from mechanics and cooks alike, we also sense a need to escape the pressure and responsibilities of modern life, even if these people work as hard as they ever have in the “other world.” This is no idle vacation; everyone must pull their own weight and act as a small, though essential piece in a very odd puzzle. Because we follow these people around as they conduct business, there’s a comforting routine in all we see, as if we half expect a place like Antarctica to be anarchic and wild. These are the daily realities, this is what the rest of us can learn from such a place, and here is where it all occurs. And even though Herzog promised he would not be making a film about those ubiquitous penguins, even he could not resist their presence. Still, leave it to Herzog to be the one man who would focus not on the cutesy communities of penguin life, but rather the solitary bird who appears to have been struck by a suicidal impulse and the subsequent journey it takes to the continent’s interior, never to be seen again. Perhaps Herzog half admires the confused penguin, as if, instead of playing it safe, it decided to carve out its own unique path amidst the indifference of ice and snow.