[Essay] Human ambition and nature in Werner Herzog — Jake Sanders

One of the facets of Werner Herzog’s work that makes him such a unique voice is his ability to carry over seamlessly the themes from his works of fiction into his documentaries. This is especially true when it comes to the concept of individual ambition pitted against the forces of the natural world.

There is perhaps no more succinct metaphor for Herzog’s view on humanity’s struggle against nature than the eponymous Fitzcarraldo’s (portayed by Klaus Kinski) dragging a 300 ton steamboat over a hill. It is an admirable but preposterous goal. As Les Blank shows in his documentary about the filming of FitzcarraldoBurden of Dreams (1982), Herzog insisted on quite literally dragging the boat over the hill, suggesting a desire to reflect accurately the passion and pain that comes with such an endeavour. Yet, the fact that Fitzcarraldo’s Herculean feat takes a Sisyphean turn shows Herzog’s general animosity towards those who see themselves as masters of the natural world. It is curious, however, that Herzog’s destruction of the Amazon jungle and controversial invoking of assistance from the local natives during filming suggest a genuine similarity between the two figures.

In his fascinating docu-drama Grizzly Man (2005), Herzog explores the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, an enthusiastic, yet troubled outdoorsman who dedicated his life to documenting his time spent living in proximity to wild grizzly bears, only for one of the bears to kill Treadwell and his girlfriend.

As in his treatment of the character of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog toes the line between admiration, ridicule and pity for Treadwell. As a filmmaker, Herzog expresses admiration for the Treadwell’s breathtaking footage, especially the inimitable spontaneity of the Alaskan wilderness Treadwell  captures in his personal recordings. Herzog’s appreciation of the recordings is lessened considerably once Treadwell, as he often does, inserts himself into the frame with a self-aggrandising air that proves off-putting and reeks of narcissism.

Had Treadwell’s ambition been solely to document the creatures without interfering, perhaps Herzog’s perception of him would have softened, but the decision to transform his videotapes into a vanity project make Treadwell a frequent subject of Herzog’s criticism. The film’s most chilling moment comes towards the end: as Herzog narrates over footage of the starving bear that would eventually become Treadwell’s killer, Herzog challenges Treadwell, who saw friendship and companionship in the bears and who thought he had achieved the ability to be accepted into the world of the grizzlies. In his own words, when Herzog looks into the eyes of the bear all he sees is “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

Treadwell’s lifelong ambition was to live among the bears and to show the world the animals as he saw them, as anthropomorphized characters in his own adventures, but his butchering at their claws seems like a cruel demonstration of exactly how callous and unpredictable the natural world can be. Yet, throughout his footage, Treadwell expresses the sentiment that to die at the hands of the bears would be the only way he would want to go, believing it to be the natural conclusion to his work. For Treadwell, whose desire to become completely a part of nature was tantamount, entering into the food chain by becoming sustenance for the bears seemed like the only death he would accept.

This places Treadwell starkly in contrast with the conquistadors of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), who believe that nature is there to mastered and exploited. As he did with Fittzcaraldo, Kinski brings his signature derangement to the role of Aguirre. But whilst Fitzcaralo’s ambition of funding his dream of putting an opera house in the jungle is insane in a way that is at least sympathetic, Aguirre’s greed and lust for power transform him into a monster.

The conquistador’s search for El Dorado – fuelled by the belief that they have God’s blessing – is the ultimate embodiment of humankind’s destructive relationship with nature. They believe that their manifest destiny is to find the fabled gold and claim it as their own. Using the typical pioneer banner of divine purpose to justify their passage, their journey leaves a wake of destruction and death and leads them closer and closer to madness.

Kinski is at his most frighteningly unhinged as he lurches around the raft in the film’s climax, ranting about ruling the land and leaving an incestuous dynasty of pure blood. The only audience for Aguirre’s monologue, and the sole inhabitants of his kingdom, are the monkeys who scurry around the raft. Herzog has transformed Aguirre from a monster of unstoppable ambition into a clown, highlighting the absurd nature of colonial powers declaring themselves the rulers of places as untameable as the jungle.

Herzog’s trademark sense of humour is never more apparent than when he explores humanity’s clashes with the natural world. There are plenty of hilarious moments in Grizzly Man, such as Treadwell having a treasured hat stolen by a mischievous fox. But his narration in Encounters at the End of the World (2007)—a fascinating account of his time spent in Antarctica—features Herzog at his most scathing, as he bemoans the attempts to bring the comforts of the civilised world to the icy pole.

Chief among Herzog’s points of disgust are the McMurdo Research Center’s bowling alley, ATM machine, and “abominations such as an aerobics studio and yoga classes”. But Herzog’s narration becomes conspicuously absent when the documentary’s focus switches to the divers who explore the strange, alien world beneath the ice. Set to a haunting operatic score, the divers are dwarfed by the icy walls and oceanic depths. The divers’ role is simply to observe and to gather data; they have no pretence of ever being able to control the peculiar hostile world of Antarctica. Herzog actually takes the time to outline his own motivations in visiting the South Pole, he makes it clear that he has no intention of “creating another film about penguins”, instead he seeks to grapple with the absurdities of the natural world.

Encounters’ most famous scene, of a deranged penguin walking to its death, puts it in sharp contrast with the Disneyfied narrative of March of the Penguins (2005) and also mirrors a moment in Grizzly Man where Herzog challenges Treadwell’s distress at seeing a fox that has been killed by one of the bears. In Herzog’s own words: “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder”.

While other documentarians such as David Attenborough channel their footage into narratives that make their animal subjects more palatable for audiences, Herzog’s ambition is to showcase nature as he sees it, a fascinating but frightening world that we will never truly understand.


Jake Sanders studied at the University of Manchester and has written film criticism for a number of publications including The Mancunion.

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