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Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Fearless Filmmaker

In light of him receiving the BBC FOUR World Cinema Achievement Award Werner Herzog gave a Guardian interview at the BFI along with a screening of his documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog has been nominated for an Academy Award for the first time ever, with 45 years of film making behind him it is probably about time. Herzog has a loyal following, with the event being sold out as fanatics came to see the don of world cinema.

Encounters at the End of the World is an enjoyable film. Werner's curiosity turns to Antarctica where he encounters ''professional dreamers'', mainly travelers and hippies with a PhD who seem to find themselves working or researching at the vast South Pole where all time and space is lost. There is a comic spin on all of these characters, with Herzog's narration anchoring their stories. One fascinating man in particular, who had escaped from incarceration in the past in some way or another was ready to travel at anytime, he carried a 20kg rucksack with everything he needed to survive.

The film shifts from one group of people or person to the other. However the central character is Antarctica, the film is about how the Continent effects and fascinates it's inhabitants. The film made this frozen land rather attractive. Three biologists lying on the frozen sea, ears to the ground, listening to seals communicating across the vast Ocean seemed at peace. There were endless scenes with operatic and choir music played over them, beautiful shots beneath the frozen land as shrunken Sci-fi species were being discovered. The beautiful and haunting soundtrack chosen by Herzog, gave a spirituality to the place.

The music was terrifically powerful and in some murky underwater scenes over-powered the misc-en-scene. However these long sequences of music with scenes under the frozen sea were rather soothing, scenes of bubbles congregating at the underside of the ice. The audience was given time to reflect on the discoveries made in the movie during these arrangements.

Human's obsession with discovery and conquering was an overarching theme of Encounters. Herzog slotted in footage of the first expedition to Antarctica and looked on in distaste at the flags and plaques commemorating representatives of countries landing on the Continent. The film itself was a quest of discovery as Herzog had no idea about who or what he was going to meet on his journey. The obsession highlighted when interviewing scientists who state that is the first time we have used this equipment to measure such and such a particle. And that we have found three new species today. Herzog both understands this need and condemns it. The overall feel is that, these studies do help to understand the way life works, but also this place is so at peace, why do humans have to spoil it?

The film was however, overall quite jolly. One scene in particular, a group of people had to go through survival training. To create a terrible snow storm and therefore loss of visibility they had to guide one another to find some one in their lost party, with a bucket on their head. It was a disaster and really funny to watch. It highlighted that humans are at mercy to this frozen and unpredictable land of Antarctica.

After the film, Mark Kermode conducted the interview with Werner. Herzog gave in depth, matter of fact, (and long) answers and held the crowd well. He is a professional and good at what he does and knows it. His slight arrogant but charming knowingness of himself was quite inspirational as he gave some words of wisdom to the crowd. He said that he is success is due to him knowing what he wanted, knowing his dream and doing everything to fulfill it. In Fitzcarraldo the characters haul a steam river boat in the Amazon over a small mountain from one river to the other, which famously was actually done in 'real life'. When asked about why he had done this Werner replied that it was only way to do it because of the dangerous waterfall at the end of one of the rivers. So for Werner the success of a film is in the production and what happens on camera, this was his message to young filmmakers in the crowd. He commented that too many filmmakers, especially in Hollywood leave things to post production.

Werner explained that he had no fear, he was done with that. Perhaps this is becuase he has persued his dream and gone to tremendous legnths to get it. And the characters in his films are dreamers, out to obtain the unobtainable. In Encounters a biologist performed his last dive. He was stopping simply becuase he had done just what he wanted to do. Herzog, however said that he will keep on making his films, without fear.

See the transcript of the interview here.

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