Filmmaker Werner Herzog was invited down to Antarctica to make a documentary about life there, although he warned his sponsors that he was in no way going to make a film about "fluffy penguins". Instead, he wanted his questions about Mother Nature answered, like why, if some animals are more intelligent than others, don't they do more - if a chimpanzee is so clever, why does it not ride a goat off into the sunset? Then there was the human question about why we wear masks and feathers and set off in pursuit of the bad guy, but more importantly, why do people want to live in the remotest part of the world at all?
If this sounds like a confusing way to begin a nature documentary, then rest assured you do find yourself adjusting to the mindset of Herzog by the time he reaches the very South of this planet, and his obsession with the cruelties of the animal and plant kingdoms, along with the uncaring elements that cover the continent he visits with ice, do start to make sense. This could easily be a simple enough run through of what life is like there at the McMurdo Station, which is where he stays as his base of operations, as there are interviews with the staff and excursions out into the freezing wilds, but with that eerie Herzog narration, you're sent into a weirdly dreamlike atmosphere.
It helps that this can be very funny too, mainly down to our guide's irascibility in the face of a small settlement that, to his dismay, features such "abominations" as bowling alleys, an aerobics centre and an ATM machine. He tells us he cannot wait to get out of this place and start exploring, but there is the matter of a training course first, which he takes great delight in showing the visitors making a hash of in their attempts to simulate travelling through a blizzard by stumbling around with buckets on their heads and failing miserably to find their bearings. You get the impression that Herzog is immensely satisfied with this: see, nature cares nothing for you!
You can also feel his delight when he meets a research scientist who spends his days diving under the ice to the sea below and collecting tiny creatures, who tells him that the world beneath their feet is a violent and hostile one, and that he believes the environment probably won't put up with mankind for much longer: a clip of the scientists watching the vintage fantasy Them! envisages this as science fiction concepts of the revenge of our world, something almost imminent. In fact, Herzog seems very at home with the people who have gravitated to the South Pole, as they all have stories that could very well match his own.
In most documentaries of this type, the filmmakers wish to divorce themselves from the events they are recording, but Herzog has an agenda to place his own worldview right at the heart of the sights he shoots. Continually, he will interrupt an interviewee with his own observations in voiceover, or undercut the beauty of some remarkable photography with a pertinent opinion, although he is just as likely to allow the images to speak for themselves. The part that everyone will remember features, funnily enough, one of those penguins: after a hilarious conversation with a taciturn expert on the birds who has to field questions on the homosexuality of penguins and whether they can become deranged, Herzog captures one of them wandering away alone into the vast landscape to certain death; it's weirdly moving watching the little guy essentially committing unwitting suicide. As usual with this director's documentaries, there is a strange mix of his unsentimentality and the striking visuals he shows us; it's not quite classic, but this is one of his better efforts.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.