Saturday, September 5, 2015

Birthday Take: Werner Herzog in "Encounters at the End of the World" (2009)

Scene from Encounters at the End of the World
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Werner Herzog
Born: September 5 1942 (73 years old)
Nomination: Best Documentary (nominated) for Encounters at the End of the World

The Take

While there's a growing appreciation for the documentary medium, there aren't very many directors whose work are synonymous with the medium. Even fewer are able to satirized in pop culture or referenced in films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. While Alex Gibney has done recent excellent work for HBO, there aren't many that likely have a synonymous and interesting unity to their style as that of Werner Herzog. While it is true that he also has the advantage of being a director of fiction and an occasional actor, he is mostly known nowadays for his documentaries, of which he provides commentary that often focuses on the fragility of the world. He finds fascination with why things operate without ever showing any bias.

What is probably his most iconic work is Grizzly Man, which attempts to make an understanding of his subject: a man who lived among bears until he was mauled to death. What was his intent? Why was he so eager to live this renegade lifestyle? The film serves not only as a journey into the subject's life, but into Herzog's fascination with it. There's two parallel stories that reflect an optimist's relationship with nature as well as a pessimist's view on its crumbling structure. We are left with a wholly satisfying portrait of the events, even if Herzog is too shy to show us the gruesome finale. It is the best evidence as to why Herzog is an icon among the documentary filmmakers currently churning out quality work. For what it's worth, he may not be the most beloved, but compared to Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) or Lauren Poitras (Citizenfour), he is an actual household name.

Which makes it odd that in the grand scheme of things, he has only one Academy Award nomination to his credit. In fact, it almost feels deliberately a scam to tie in with a previous Best Documentary winner. At the beginning of Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog claims that he is making a documentary not about cute penguins like March of the Penguins. He's making something that embodies the rest of the world and what happens there. Yes, it means that the film is allowed to explore more interesting topics that haven't been covered before. We get to see Antarctica rock bands and deep sea diving like never before. We get the beauty of a regular Herzog documentary. In fact, it's pretty good on its own merit.

But what it seems to be missing is that Herzog touch. The information is all fascinating, but there's no personality to the proceedings. This may partially be due to a limited shooting time. However, Herzog only feels like a director here - shooting footage that will give the audience a new experience. You don't get the heights of Grizzly Man's interesting parallel stories. You don't get any major conflict. You get a few silly moments, some of grandiose beauty, but that's it. He doesn't really get too far under the surface. If one were to look at this film solely as a cumulative Oscar (that is, if he hypothetically won't get another one), then it's not the greatest one to represent him. It's good enough, but you won't get the Herzog experience if this is the only work of his you will see.

With that said, Herzog remains a fascinating figure. He is capable of being more than a unique voice. He captures a beautiful passion and awe in the world that makes his work easily accessible and cutting edge. While I don't know that this would work with every other director doing a documentary, I do think that Herzog makes something that serves as art on top of educating the audience. Even if his work as a whole may not be as immediately recognizable to mainstream audiences, he will definitely go down as one of the more charismatic and fascinating documentarians of the modern era. The fact that it overshadows his fictional narrative career is alone a testament to his craft.

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