Disclaimer: Blogwise this week I feel like an overworked dad who, forced to balance a busy work schedule while feeding the family when mom’s out of town, has been reduced to providing a steady diet of Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Perhaps sufficient to fill the stomach, but not as much time for preparation and presentation as one might like. In my busy circumstances there are many issues I’d like to blog about which require more time and effort than I presently have. So instead I offer a meditation on one (actually two) lost penguins…
Image credit: ©Robin Holland/robinholland.com
Everybody has their favorite existential, nihilistic German film director. Mine happens to be Werner Herzog. His documentary “Grizzly Man” is my favorite film from his oeuvre, It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, an eccentric who lived with Alaska’s wild bears … until he was eaten by them. But this post isn’t about “Grizzly Man.” Rather, it is about my second favorite Herzog film.
In “Encounters at the End of the World” Herzog takes on another fascinating topic. This film documents his visit to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a tiny dot of human civilization which is set in the midst of a vast brutally cold and unremittingly hostile landscape. The setting is significant. Herzog is an atheist who speaks often of his convictions in his films. And it seems that in this case McMurdo serves to symbolize the human condition: civilization hanging on by a thread, hoping that an army of Honda generators can withstand the howling winds and bone-chilling cold of the Antarctic night. And all the while utter annihilation is always but one massive power failure away.
The film largely consists of Herzog’s interviews with many of the people who find their way down to McMurdo (2000 in the “summer”, a skeleton crew of 200 attempting to hold cabin fever at bay in the winter). The interviews are fascinating and provide a cross-section of an ecclectic humanity. Time and again it is intriguing to learn what draws people to the very bottom of the earth.
While there are many great moments in the film, perhaps the most memorable of all is captured in this clip where we consider the plight of penguins gone astray. Early in the scene we see one penguin set off on a strange course. As Herzog narrates, “He would neither go toward the feeding grounds at the edge of the ice or return to the coloney. Shortly afterwards we saw him heading straight toward the mountains some seventy kilometers away.” It makes no sense. Herzog explains that even if the penguin was caught and brought back to the feeding grounds, it would immediatley turn around and head back to the mountains.
Herzog cannot help but ask: “But why?” Occasionally other penguins inexplicably set off on a similar course. Herzog shows footage of another penguin shuffling past researchers staying at a camp. At this point that penguin was “already eighty kilometers away from where it should be.” As it continues on over the rock and snow Herzog observes, “here he’s heading off into the interior of the vast continent. With five thousand kilometers ahead of him he’s heading towards certain death.” Herzog asks the question: do penguins go crazy? Do they just become tired of life? Are some of them deranged? What drives a penguin to acts that will culminate in its own destruction? What is a life well lived for a penguin? What does any of this matter? We must ask those questions while knowing that Antarctica, like the entire grand universe, neither knows nor cares about the wayward path of penguins … or people.