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Facing a cold, hard reality

Special to The Times

Werner HERZOG says he should have known better. In 46 years of visionary filmmaking often devoted to life in extremis, the prolific director has never been one to toe the line. But on his latest work, the nonfiction feature “Encounters at the End of the World,” he had a brief lapse: Against his better instincts, he followed instructions -- and found himself on the losing end of a tussle with an 800-pound snowmobile.

“Encounters,” filmed over seven weeks in Antarctica, abounds with exhilarating and strange beauty, unforgettable characters both human and otherwise, and is often mordantly funny. Having now made features on all seven continents, Herzog discovered a landscape unlike anything he had previously explored. “The only thing that comes close would be the Sahara Desert, in just the expanse of it and the amount of solitude,” he said recently.

Arriving at the Studio City offices of the film’s production company, Creative Differences, Herzog was all warm hellos and high energy and dispensed not a syllable of unnecessary preliminaries. That focus and efficiency are hardly surprising; this is a man who has released six films in the last five years, one of which, the acclaimed documentary “Grizzly Man,” he shot, edited and delivered in 29 days.

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In the lead-up to this Friday’s Los Angeles bow of “Encounters” for a weeklong run at the Nuart, Herzog was juggling preproduction logistics for his next project, the Nicolas Cage-starring remake of “Bad Lieutenant.” That film, which has more than 45 speaking roles, is at the far end of the spectrum from Herzog’s two-man-crew adventures in the vast emptiness of Antarctica.

But he’s famous for moving between fiction and nonfiction -- sometimes within the same film -- and for dismissing the distinction between the two as arbitrary. Central to his 2005 sci-fi narrative “The Wild Blue Yonder” was documentary footage of Antarctic dives. That underwater imagery, by diver Henry Kaiser, led Herzog to the South Pole to make “Encounters.”

“There is something almost sacred about being there,” he said, “something that does not belong to our planet anymore. As if it were science fiction, as if we were confronted with the essence of creation.”

But before Herzog, who handled the film’s production sound, and his longtime cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, could venture into the frozen wilderness and out to the field camps where glaciologists, biologists, physicists and volcanologists pursue their singular passions, they had to endure a week of “briefings and bureaucracy and snowmobile training,” not to mention the mandatory exercises of the Happy Camper survival school.

Only a couple of days into his stay at McMurdo Station, the sprawling base camp and research hub, the director, an accomplished skier who had never been on a snowmobile, was asked to make a turn on a slope that looked too steep. “I followed instructions, which I shouldn’t have.” When the “monster” of a vehicle toppled, it rolled over Herzog and left him “hurting everywhere” for the remainder of the shoot.

But “Encounters” offers no evidence that its director was in pain; marked by Herzog’s signature brooding exuberance and German-accented voice-over pronouncements on such “abominations” as aerobics studios and New Age wishful thinking, it’s full of affection for the outsiders, full-time travelers and philosopher-forklift drivers who call McMurdo home during the five-month, nighttime-free austral summer.

“You find a retired judge washing dishes in the galley,” Herzog said.

Herzog’s willingness to strip his filmmaking operation down to the “absolute minimum” -- Zeitlinger and himself -- was a key selling point to the National Science Foundation, which runs McMurdo and was Herzog’s sponsor.

“James Cameron apparently, I was told, had applied to be invited to McMurdo, and his request was declined because he would only show up with, I don’t know, a 35-man crew -- I’m just taking a guess. And to maintain one single person for one day down there is a huge expense. . . . I did not want to waste resources that they need for other things.”

Herzog also made it clear to the NSF that he was not interested in filming a heartwarming tribute to “fluffy” penguins. Yet a couple of individuals from that pop-culture-fav species do make a powerful impression. Zeitlinger’s images of them, in combination with Herzog’s narration, create an indelible expression of nothing less than the existential mystery of life.

“I know the film has depth, although it tries to hide it behind all its humor,” Herzog conceded. “It’s probably pretty much the deepest film I’ve made -- maybe with the exception of ‘Land of Silence and Darkness’ ” (a 1971 documentary portrait of Fini Straubinger, who was deaf and blind).

Although his Antarctic explorations were above the surface -- as far above it as the rim of 12,000-foot Mount Erebus, where he received “etiquette” lessons in how to respond when a volcano explodes -- Herzog’s initial inspiration for “Encounters” was the marine world “under the ceiling of ice.” That may be why he’s particularly pleased with an underwater sequence that uses footage by Kaiser and sound design by Doug Quinn of seals calling to one another, in voices that one scientist likens to Pink Floyd. “That’s the finest moment in sound I’ve heard in many years,” Herzog said.

For the filmmaker, who rejects romanticized notions about the natural world -- “I don’t have any beliefs about nature. I just make my own observations” -- the Antarctic landscape put certain realities into stark relief. “The only thing that becomes quite obvious in Antarctica,” he said, “is that our presence on this planet, the human presence on the planet, is not really sustainable.”

Herzog is not talking merely about the top-of-mind matter of global warming. “Climate change would not be the only reason why we might become extinct. Sure, it may be a factor. It may not. But human life in complicated civilized structures is very, very vulnerable. And of course when you look at the presence of biological life on this planet, it has been an endless line of cataclysmic events. . . . I do not make any predictions. That would be silly; we do not know. But there is an all-pervasive sense which makes me see clearly that our presence is not sustainable -- in particular this highly technical civilization which is wasting resources at a dramatic pace.”

Some observers have mistaken Herzog’s clear-eyed view for misanthropy. But like the “professional dreamers” he encountered in Antarctica, he meets the world head-on -- creatively, ecstatically and without undue regard for convention.

“The thought that human beings may eventually disappear from this planet doesn’t make me nervous,” Herzog noted. “There was a very beautiful thing that Martin Luther, the reformist, said in the 16th century. He was asked, ‘What would you do if tomorrow the world would disappear, would explode, would not be anymore?’ And Luther said, ‘I would plant an apple tree.’ ” Herzog leaned forward, smiling, his voice filled with gleeful decisiveness. “And my answer is, if I knew it was over tomorrow, I would start to shoot a movie.”


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