Some say the world will end in fire, some—like Werner Herzog and Guy Maddin—say ice. Flying in the face of global warming, each of these profoundly idiosyncratic filmmakers leads an expedition, alternately comic and visionary, to the heart of coldness.
Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World chronicles his trip to Antarctica; Maddin’s My Winnipeg pays homage to his hometown on the Canadian tundra. Both movies are personal travelogues, wintry in their humor and Nordic in their aggravated sense of impending doom; both feature the director as intrepid, not entirely reliable tour guide.
Heir to the explorer-filmmakers of the silent era, Herzog has made a career documenting extreme landscapes (the Amazon, the Sahara, the Australian outback) and courting danger. He’s scaled an active volcano on an abandoned Caribbean island, flown low over the flaming oil rigs of Desert Storm, and, mixing it up with the maddest of actors, directed half a dozen movies starring Klaus Kinski.
Perhaps because Herzog is approaching old-master status, Encounters at the End of the World skews toward the observational. As in Grizzly Man, his 2005 portrait of a deranged bear lover, Herzog seems at least as fascinated with other people’s obsessions as his own. Taking an Antarctica-bound military plane out of New Zealand, he ponders his fellow travelers, wondering who they are and what they dream. And like Grizzly Man, Encounters incorporates other people’s material—namely producer Henry Kaiser’s unearthly under-the- icecap photography and archival footage made nearly a century ago, in the course of the Shackleton expedition.
As discovered (or scripted), the U.S. settlement at McMurdo Sound is populated by an assortment of geeks, vagabonds, and loners—a plumber who displays elongated index fingers as evidence of his royal Aztec lineage, a guy looking to set a Guinness record in each continent, a middle-aged woman introduced with the words, “Back in the ’80s, I took a garbage truck across Africa . . . ” (Later, she appears in a McMurdo nightclub, performing an act that involves packing herself up in a piece of hand luggage.)
Ga-ga and irascible, claiming to loathe the sensation of the sun on his skin and complaining of being stuck in the “abomination” of McMurdo, Herzog amuses himself documenting “white-out” training, with the would-be explorers running absurdly through the snow, buckets over their heads, as they drift completely off-course. At last, he escapes to a research camp where, the scientists tell him, the silence is so absolute that you can hear your heart beat—not to mention the Pink Floyd sounds with which the seals signal each other under the ice.
The world is upside-down. Herzog is delighted to find a physicist engaged in a spiritual quest, searching for almost undetectable subatomic particles in a parallel universe. He films marine biologists sitting around watching the trailer for the 1954 mutant-giant-ant flick Them! and is pleased to learn that there’s a “horrible, violent world” of hungry worms and carnivorous protoplasm thriving beneath the ice. Herzog means his movie’s title to be taken literally—and not just because the polar ice is melting. The filmmaker enjoys imagining the end of the world—or rather, its afterlife, with the alien archaeologists of the future visiting our lifeless planet to ponder the meaning of a flower print framed in a garland of frozen popcorn.
As Encounters at the End of the World was, like Grizzly Man, produced by the Discovery Channel, Herzog takes care to inoculate himself against New Age sentimentality—making many mocking references to “tree huggers” and “whale huggers”—and avoids feel-good anthropomorphism. Although not specifically mentioned, his bête noire is March of the Penguins, the wildly popular animal doc that opened opposite Grizzly Man. When he does visit penguin land, Herzog immediately questions the birds’ imagined family values, asking a painfully diffident scientist if there are gay penguins. The naturalist ponders the question and suggests that penguin threesomes and even prostitution are not unknown.
Herzog isn’t satisfied: “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” he demands. “Could they just go crazy because they’ve had enough of their colony?” (Could they just go to Antarctica?) Before the scientist can answer, the filmmaker cuts to a single bird, shown in long shot waddling away from its colleagues toward the interior mountains and, as Herzog notes, certain death. This penguin marches to its own tune.
Herzog may loathe the projection of human attributes onto the animal kingdom, but he’s managed to find one of his antiheroes: There’s no mistaking his point that the doomed, irrational creature is us.
As Encounters at the End of the World harks back to the expeditionary cinema of the ‘teens, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg recalls in perversely nostalgic fashion the city symphonies of the ’20s.
Climate change isn’t part of Maddin’s agenda: His frozen reverie on Canada’s “Gateway to the West” is barely defrosted by the warmth of the projector bulb. My Winnipeg opens with a montage of newsreel and a bit of canned cheer in the form of the ’50s booster ballad “Wonderful Winnipeg.” Soon, however, the filmmaker is conjuring up his own “snowy, sleepy Winnipeg,” a place of eternal winter and endless night. Not only is Winnipeg the world’s coldest city, Maddin claims, but it has 10 times as many somnambulists as any place on earth.
A movie of moody reflection and dreamlike condensation, My Winnipeg is shot mainly in black and white, punctuated with near-subliminal intertitles, frame-filling fake snow flurries, and the melancholy sounds of trains crossing the prairie. The filmmaker provides a turgid stream of consciousness, babbling on in an urgent, incantatory mock-travelogue style—with recurring shots of his stand-in (Darcy Fehr, who played Maddin in Cowards Bend the Knee) riding the midnight special, hunched over asleep, head down on the seat tray.
Maddin’s Winnipeg proves to be as treacherous an environment as any navigated by Herzog. Convinced that he must leave the city “now!”, Maddin instead finds himself back in childhood, living in a frame house fronted by his mother’s beauty salon—a house cloudy with hair spray and constructed so that, lying in bed, he hears “every word of conversation that roiled out of the gynocracy” on the ground floor. Restaging his youth with an ex-girlfriend’s dog standing in for the family’s “long, long dead Chihuahua,” the filmmaker might be reimagining The Glass Menagerie as a performance piece in which he inhabits brother, sister, and gentleman caller—every character except the mother, “a force as powerful as all the trains in Manitoba.” In a brilliant bit of film-fetish casting, she’s played by Ann Savage—the unforgettable actress who, 62 years ago, lit up the obscurity of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour with the scary intensity of her performance.
Making his own detours, Maddin transforms Winnipeg into a city of mystery. No less than Feuillade’s Paris, this is a dream dump of labyrinthine alleyways, mysterious monuments, and peculiar landmarks. The world’s smallest park is a single tree; the sole respite from the city’s flatness is the landfill mountain known as Garbage Hill. The local pageants are even stranger: On “If Day,” 5,000 uniformed Nazis stage a mock invasion and rename Winnipeg “Himmlerstadt.” Most arcane are the hockey rites—and also the most personal: Maddin claims to have been born in the locker room of the Winnipeg Maroons’ now-demolished home.
My Winnipeg is Maddin’s best filmmaking since the not-dissimilar confessional bargain-basement phantasmagoria, Cowards Bend the Knee. The editing is dense; the action is fluid. Just as actual newsreels blend with the filmmaker’s expert reconstructions, so local history—the 1919 general strike and a racetrack fire, both depicted in silhouette animation—merges with extravagant invention. The track disaster creates a temporary Guernica as the horses stampede and, contorted with panic, are frozen in the snow. Similarly, half-remembered family traumas are explicated by imaginary television shows. (Ledge Man, which stars the actor playing Maddin, is a half-hour drama in which every episode ends with the hero’s mother talking him back from suicide.)
“Who is alive anymore?” Maddin wonders as the movie wends toward closure. “It’s so hard to remember.” For anyone familiar with his oeuvre, My Winnipeg is additionally ghost-haunted. In the course of this clanging, spectral memoir, all of the artist’s previous movies—from his underground mock epic Tales from the Gimli Hospital through his faux–Soviet silent The Heart of the World to his period spectacular The Saddest Music in the World—come to mind. A conquistador like Werner Herzog sets off for Antarctica to find himself. But for Guy Maddin, the whole world is Winnipeg.