The Wrath of Herzog

Werner Herzog believes in Santa. Both of them. Visiting Penn in late October, the notoriously eccentric German filmmaker regaled a packed house with tales from two poles—beginning with North Pole, Alaska, destination of hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus every year.

“I do not trust in the army, I do not trust in much of politics, I do not trust the police in most cases,” Herzog declared—after Penn police had ejected over 200 seatless people from the auditorium, citing a fire hazard. “But I trust in the postal system.”

It was the Christmastime quirk in the nation’s snail-mail system that led Herzog back to Alaska, which had been the site of his Oscar-nominated, bear-eats-man documentary Grizzly Man. Searching for an idea for another film, he followed the trail of gift lists to the town of North Pole. What he found at the end, he told the audience in Meyerson Hall, was “two feuding Santa Clauses who threatened to murder each other” in a dispute over the rightful ownership of the title. And as if that weren’t enough, there had also been a revolt among the elves—a group of middle-school boys who help to answer some of those letters.

“Seven of them planned—very, very precisely—a Columbine-type mass murder,” Herzog recounted. “Got themselves assault rifles. Communicated with each other over email to compile, in perfection, their hit list,” which included dozens of other kids and teachers. “And they were caught a day before they got into the reality of it.”

Yet that represents the filmmaker’s mundane side. As cinema-studies students discovered during an earlier screening of the yet-to-be-released Encounters at the End of the World, it’s the Antipodes that find Herzog in full form.

Perhaps the most unlikely thing about Encounters is that it was made possible by the National Science Foundation, which sponsors an artist-in-residence program at Antarctica’s McMurdo base.

“I had a very odd application,” Herzog explained.

“I had to explain that I was into things like: Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?  And why is it that human beings saddle a horse, and like the Lone Ranger, put on masks in order to disguise their identity and then feel the urge to chase the bad guy?  And why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of wild lice in order to milk them like slaves for droplets of sugar?  And why is it that a chimp—clearly a superior creature—does not straddle a goat and ride into the sunset?”

Appropriately for an event billed “Was the 20th Century a Mistake?” Herzog urged his laughter-wracked audience to reject the “post-structuralist babble” infesting the humanities and turn their attention to phenomena like Anna Nicole Smith and WrestleMania, which he likened to Greek tragedy before Sophocles.

“The poet must not avert his eyes,” he continued. “Theoretical film studies has become really awful. That’s not how you should study film. Abolish these courses and do something else which makes much more sense.”

What should students be doing, then?  

“They should do bold contact sports. They should do sparring in boxing rings,” Herzog said, recommending that women pursue volleyball instead. “Go out and earn your tuition. Earn it by becoming a bouncer in a sex club. Go and work in a lunatic asylum as a warden. Go out to cross Africa.

“Do things that are very, very intense, and very much like pura vida: intense, raw, pure life.”—T.P.

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