Underneath the Antarctic ice is an unearthly sky, a sheet of brown ice clouds over a deep blue that descends to a rock-strewn canyon, rocks which upon closer look turn out to be soldier-esque crabs camped out in the trenches. It’s a claustrophobic, metaphoric still life that—like many other dangers—clutches director Werner Herzog by the soul. “I try to understand the ocean beneath the thin layer of ice that is civilization,” he once said to the New Yorker. “There’s miles and miles of Deep Ocean, of darkness and barbarism. And I know the ice can break easily.”
This mystical, cynical, hypocritical elegy is his second return to the deep after his somnolent The Wild Blue Yonder, and like its predecessor, it plunges us into the unique territory of Herzog’s mind—the best subject for most of his documentaries—where pans of the ocean floor layered with oppressive choral music can be spliced next to footage of the director asking a biologist if penguins can go insane. The tuxedoed bird is both the film’s foil and its symbol. Herzog sneers at their proletariat appeal, saying he’s out to make a doc about nature and control that asks why can’t a chimp “straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset?”
At Antarctica’s National Science Foundation base McMurdo (which Herzog’s Teutonic accent and sensibilities warp into “McMurder”), he’s displeased to find yoga classes—“Abominations!”—but glad to find other adventurers like himself, seekers who jumped off the grid and tumbled down to the bottom on the earth. He briefly introduces us to these men and women with their suburban faces and swashbuckler stories of surviving machete attacks and riding across South America in a sewer pipe, but interrupts and describes their adventures himself. Their efforts to live large or die trying parallel him, of course, but also a headstrong penguin he labels “disturbed and deranged” that breaks away from the pack and heads alone across the continent. If he wore a suit, they’d be twins.
“Nature will regulate us,” Herzog intones, neither gnashing his teeth at global warming nor ignoring its existence. But what, he wonders, will future archaeologists think of the frozen sturgeon and popcorn chain these explorers have planted at the dead center of the pole? That it’s a crazy junkyard memorial that befits its creators.