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Werner Herzog: "Tell me about the iceberg, tell me about your dreams."

Werner Herzog and Roger Ebert at Ebertfest 2007.

Werner Herzog's documentary "Encounters at the End of the World" is a film about the humans and other creatures who make their homes at the South Pole. It opens July 11 at the Music Box, and is in release around the world. I posed five questions to the great director.

RE: From the beginning if your career, you have been drawn to people who exist at the extremes. It is impossible to conceive of a Herzog film about ordinary people living ordinary lives. Why are the exceptions so much the rule with you?

WH: I am curious about our human condition. As you would understand the very nature of physical matter by putting it under extreme temperature, pressure, or radiation, similarly human beings would reveal their nature under extreme conditions. The Greeks have a proverbial saying I always liked: "A captain only shows during a storm." Ordinary lives are the ones we lead, but they are not really a fertile soil for movies.

RE: From the day of "Aguirre" and even earlier, you have been drawn to far-off, isolated places. The working conditions for some of your shoots must be extremely difficult. Your reason for filming in the rain forest are famous; you said you filmed hundreds of miles up the Amazon (instead of a few miles into the jungle) because the films would absorb "the voodoo of the locations." Now here you are at the South Pole. What draws you to the end of the world?

WH: As I grew up in a very isolated place in the mountains of Bavaria, there has always been an enormous curiosity within me about what lay beyond the horizon. The locations of "Aguirre" were quite obvious. But the opinion that during the filming of "Fitzcarraldo" I rejected the idea of filming near our headquarters in the jungle city of Iquitos in order to get some "voodoo" is certainly wrong, and hard to get out of the public perception.

"Fitzcarraldo" depended on a specific geography: two parallel tributaries of the Amazon had to come within less than a mile of each other with only a manageable mountain in between for hauling a boat across. I started out at one of the suitable locations in northern Peru close to the border with Ecuador, but once I had my camp for about one thousand extras completed, a border war broke out, and the camp was burnt to the ground. The next best location was more than a thousand kilometers from Iquitos, and I had no real choice.

As for the South Pole, it itself has no specific attraction for me. It was incredible underwater footage from under the ice of the Ross Sea that made Antarctica irresistible. But if I had a chance to venture out with a camera to a planet in our solar system, I would go, even if it were a one-way ticket only.

RE: What was your method? All of the people you talk to in "Encounters at the End of the World" are genuinely interesting originals, with a particular way of discussing their lives almost objectively. Did you wander around chatting up your South Pole citizens? How did they regard the idea of a film about their settlement? Did some of them know you and your work? Among those who did not, how did you strike them?

WH: Going to Antarctica required a lot of self-confidence. There was no possibility to go on a scouting trip. I went down there only with a cinematographer (I did the production sound), and I knew I had to come back with a film seven weeks later.

The community at McMurdo did not know much about me, but they accepted me quickly. Quite a few of them I met only for a few minutes more than what you can see on the screen. The scientist who studies the gigantic glaciers ("larger than the country that built the Titanic") was on his way to his plane to New Zealand; he had only thirty minutes for me, and twenty I spent to make him feel calm and comfortable. Then I said: "I know that deep inside you are a poet. Tell me about the iceberg, and tell me about your dreams."

RE: From where do you draw your boundless energy and curiosity? Although you are often cut off from most of the usual sources of financing for films, you remain one of the most prolific and productive of all directors, and never, ever, compromise your principles to make a merely "commercial" project.

WH: I can only take a guess. I have always followed a vision, and developed a sense of duty. The best answer about my curiosity comes from one of the characters in "Encounters," the Bulgarian man who drives a caterpillar. He studied philosophy and comparative literature, and tells about his grandmother who read the Odyssey to him as a child. "That's when I fell in love with the world" he says, and my heart stood still for a moment. I knew I had fallen in love with the world as well when I was very young, and all my films are my witness. As to "merely commercial" projects: I always wanted to do mainstream films, films that could be understood in all countries, by all ages. I may have become some sort of a secret mainstream with some of my films. And as to finances: only faith moves mountains, and money does not.

RE: You strike in this film once again an apocalyptic note. The title could have a double meaning. Do you feel we are living at the end of days? If you do, what is the purpose for continuing to make movies, or work at all, or care? How do you feel about the possibility of the annihilation of all of your work, and all the other expressions of mankind over the centuries?

WH: I made some other films with an apocalyptic note, "Lessons of Darkness" most notably, and "Fata Morgana." However, I do not think that the end is imminent, but one thing is clear: We are only fugitive guests on our planet. Martin Luther, the reformer, was asked: "What would you do, if the world came to an end tomorrow?" and he replied: "I would plant an apple tree." I would start shooting a new film.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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