Graduates in philosophy at the University of Essex are this week holding their annual Graduate Philosophy Conference. This year the theme is nature, and as per tradition the organisers are screening films related to the theme in the week leading up to the conference (Saturday 4 May, more details here).
On Tuesday Tom Whyman (PhD student and “think-bro”, philosophy, essex) introduced Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, a film that is – unsurprisingly – about the end of the world, but also about the end of a particular world, and the way in which Herzog envisages the end of that world as brought about by the resurgence of another, more primordial and authentically natural world. In anticipation of Saturday’s conference, and while this is fresh in my mind after last night’s screening, I note here some thoughts about Herzog’s exploration of the death of humanity at the hands of nature.
Encounters is a documentary filmed at McMurdo Station, a base of operations for biologists, volcanologists, physicists and others working on scientific study of the Antarctic ecosystem. Herzog’s journey to Antarctica is driven by his fascination for a spectacular submarine realm that is as beautiful in its transcendence as it is terrifying in its threat of violence and death. The journey, which begins with him asking why most animals do not subjugate the rest of the natural world like we do, soon reminds Herzog that he does not believe that the natural world is as innocent as his initial questions suggest, and that for all his concern with the brutality with which humans abuse other creatures, it is only a matter of time before nature will again reveal its true role in our lives: less indentured servant, more cold and unforgiving pan-deity, an apocalyptic messiah that will return once we have destroyed the Antarctic icebergs and released the same primordial bloodlust that we, Herzog suggests, fled from when we evolved out of the sea and onto land.
What is perhaps most interesting about Herzog’s vision of the end of the world is that it finds itself most often pre-occupied with how we prepare for the end. Encounters is obsessed with preparation. Much of the time spent with the scientists is at McMurdo, the base of their operations and a village that seems to exist in a constant state of being built, populated by JCBs, diggers, trucks, and drills. Here, as in the field camps that we move to later in the film, Herzog becomes intrigued with the way that the inhabitants of McMurdo prepare for expeditions. One extended sequence follows the camp’s survival training, preparation necessary for anyone who will venture out of the confines of the camp to face the unmitigated danger of the Antarctic wilderness, and we watch the blundering attempts of a dozen trainees to cope with conditions simulating a blinding snowstorm. Another scene patiently observes the preparation of an expert diver on his last dive below the ice, watching the diver labour over his multiple layers to protect him from the cold, a “suiting-up” that seems to take as much time as the dive itself will take.
In conversation with the diver preparing for his last dive, Herzog discusses the similarity between the creatures under the ice and the science-fiction monsters that this diver watches in his down-time. In one of the documentary’s funniest, and I think most revealing moments, Herzog asks the diver whether he thinks that mammals and humans evolved into land-creatures to escape the terror and cruelty of life in the sea, that evolution has been driven by panic and fear. The diver agrees. When the divers prepare to submerge, they prepare to re-enter this violent arena that we know from other Herzog documentaries he sees as the cruel reality of the natural world (think for instance of his only disagreement with Treadwell in Grizzly Man – Treadwell is to Herzog, for all his virtues as a filmmaker, naive about the brutality of nature). In other words, Encounters suggests that the explorations of the divers is their return to a primordial, and in Herzog’s eyes more authentic natural realm.
Encounters emphasis on the scientists’ preparation to return to this more authentic is compounded by the film’s messianic theme. Herzog also observes that the divers and their team prepare for their dives in complete silence, and tells us that it reminds him of priests preparing for mass. In conversation with one of McMurdo’s physicists, we learn that their project to detect neutrinos – trillions of particles bombarding and colliding with us at every moment – is thought of by this physicist as an attempt to make some kind of connection with what he describes as a spiritual realm that surrounds us in parallel to our empirical reality. The physicist even goes so far as to describe this as something surrounding him ‘almost as some kind of spirit or God’. It is as if the scientific exploration undertaken in the Antarctic is an attempt to reconnect with a lost sense of the divine, and that the lengthy preparations taken by the biologists and physicists – priests preparing for mass – are their preparation for a return of this divinity.
The story that is told through these suggestions is one that casts the end of the world as a return of the violence of primordial nature. When the characters of Encounters discuss the most obvious manifestation of this impending apocalypse – the migration north and ultimate melting of the icebergs – the film frames this as a discussion of the opening of a natural Pandora’s box, the ice melting to release the sci-fi monsters and brutal authentic natural world currently contained and hidden under the ice. All this means that the vision of the end of the world at which Herzog arrives puts his initial questions about the subjugation of nature at the hands of humanity into a transcendent and humbling context. The question “why don’t animals abuse each other for their own ends in the way do?” is met with the answer: “the brutality of humans riding on horses is nothing compared to the destruction we will face once the true violence of nature returns”.
The messianic picture of the end of the world in Encounters is thus not of the return of Christ to establish the kingdom of heaven in our world, but the return of the savage nature that we escaped from when we escaped out of the sea onto land. And perhaps the most humbling moment of Herzog’s presentation of this picture is when we watch one of the inhabitants of McMurdo show us precisely how he is ‘always prepared’. One of the many travellers who have somehow found themselves at the end of our world tells Herzog how he always has a backpack packed and ready to be used should he need to travel. The backpack is designed to contain anything the intrepid adventure might need: a sleeping bag, a tent, clothes, cooking utensils, even an inflatable dingy and a paddle, all kept under 20kg.
Herzog suggests that the inclusion of the dingy and the paddle is strange. And he is right of course. Not if we think of this backpack as a preparation for a trek through uncharted territory, because you never know when you might need to cross a river, but if instead we think of this backpack as a futile attempt to prepare for what everyone else in Encounters is preparing for: the end of the world. For Herzog, the final voyage that we are preparing for promises only destruction, violence, and death, and when we’re up that particular shit-creek, even a paddle can’t help us.