Art Science Religion

Two weeks ago, I streamed Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. It follows our intrepid filmmaker on a walkabaout in Antarctica. No mere documentary, although, yes, it is sort of that, the movie is a complex reverie at the edge of abyss.

When I was in high school, I loved Werner Herzog’s films (Aguirre Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo). I remembering going to the old Charles Theater in Baltimore, before they fancied it up. The romantic encounter with physical and psychic intensity appealed to my adolescent imagination. I still love this kind of stuff, but films such as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams are, frankly, better without Klaus Kinsky. What I find so impressive about this film in particular are the complex polarities between:

Science – Technology – Nature – Society – Spirit

Origins – Apocalypse         Primitivism – Futurism        

Inside – Outside                Water – Fire             

Stasis – Motion              Reason – Unreason

This is a cold, violent world full of glory, grace, and intelligence. I’ll concede that, yes, this is high-order romantic kitsch which I’ve bought hook, line and sinker. How then can I explain myself? Shouldn’t I know better? I guess I’m an incurable (German) Romantic.

It comes down to trust, whether or not you trust your guide, in this case the filmmaker and his crew. I guess I do. With Herzog’s early work, I’m less and less smitten. As for what I like in the mature work, it has everything to do with the the blend of science, art, and wonder; and also the combination of ambition and restraint, and the thoughtful approach to volatile aesthetic-affective contents. Maybe the late Herzog is a cool Romantic, and that’s easier to digest. This is true of Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. What I trust in Herzog are the gentle wit and ironic meanderings that pervade the intelligent probing of consciousness into strange physical spaces and unfamiliar mental places.

As for “God,” that’s up for grabs in the film, isn’t it? As far as I’m concerned, God if God is indeed there is in the picture, but outside the frame. That’s not a bad place to put “Him.” God’s there if you want or need him, and not there if you don’t.

I’m in the tank with Werner. Check out the very short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) at It’s about politics, society, the value of film, and adequate images.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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