Encounters With Herzog: Finding “Truth” At the End of the World

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Werner Herzog’s impressive oeuvre includes a mixture of both fictional feature films as well as documentaries. There is no easy way to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction is his films because a mixture of both forms is always prevalent. Herzog works both within and against the context of documentary cinema in order to reach what he calls the “poetic, ecstatic truth” (Ames, ix). And this Herzogian truth is only attainable through the use of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Ames, 2). Encounters at the End of the World serves as a specific example of Herzog’s style in which he documents his experiences at the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica. Here he chronicles the everyday lives of eccentric people who have chosen to live there as well as the beauty of a place far removed from any other people on the planet. The long, uninterrupted takes of life both above and below the ice, asynchronous music, and voice over narration characterize Herzog’s style and also sets the stage for a performance in which he sets out on a philosophical exploration of “truth” at the end of the world.

The characteristic long takes can be found throughout Encounters. The seemingly never-ending takes show life above, below, and inside of the ice that makes up Antarctica. Herzog employs long takes in order to establish the authenticity of his story. The camera remains a passive observer, letting the events unfold in real time. For example, the opening scene shows a diver under the ice of Antarctica (Encounters). The surreal underwater landscape is seen in only three different shots. There is no action occurring in these shots other than observation, either by the camera or by another diver seen on screen. Herzog’s narration is even kept to a minimum by providing the audience with simply the location and the source from which the images were captured. The long takes and objective source of scientists reinforce these images as being accurate depictions of Antarctica that were not constructed or reproduced on a studio set. Because there is minimal interference with events and long uninterrupted takes, the authenticity is established by just letting things progress naturally in a scene. It is a common element utilized in documentary films that set out to objectively observe. However, Herzog also uses long takes to establish a different sort of authenticity, especially in the interviews with the inhabitants of McMurdo. In interviews such as those with Scott Rowland, driver of Ivan the Terra Bus, or Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist and professional dreamer, Herzog’s presence is rarely ever invasive. He allows the social actors to talk about their experiences both past and present, thoughts, or observations, without directing the conversation in any direction. The camera tends to linger on them much longer than seems necessary sometimes, which leads to improvisation on the part of the social actor. A specific interview that stands out is with David Pacheco, who Herzog gives the title of “Journeyman Plumber” (Encounters). Pacheco talks about his supposed ancestral link to Aztec kings based on the way his fingers match up. Once Pacheco has finished talking, Herzog does not ask any more questions and simply lets the camera linger on him. This produces quite an awkward experience for the audience and presumably for Pacheco as well, who just picks up his tools and continues to work after a few awkward silent moments (Encounters). For Herzog, the awkwardness and improvisation on the part of the social actor produces a sense of authenticity, which allows the audience to connect with the character.

There is a focus on the audience that permeates throughout most of Herzog’s films, which is achieved through a variety of techniques. A subtle yet intrinsically important technique used is non-diegetic music. For Herzog, a documentary is a performance, and therefore moments of it are often staged (Ames, 4). Music helps to call attention to this staging by focusing on affecting the audience’s experience emotionally or sensationally with the images on the screen. In terms of Herzog’s attempt to portray “truth,” using music to create on affect adds to the stylization of a film. The music used in Encounters calls attention to the documentary as a construct produced by Herzog by highlighting his involvement in the creation of a specific meaning that accompanies an image. The opening scene, again, is a good example that illustrates this. By indicating that the footage seen on screen was taken by a professional diver working at a research station in Antarctica assumes that this footage is meant to be objective and factual like something from an observational documentary. However, Herzog adds in the soundtrack what sounds like a choir singing in church (Encounters). This immediately evokes a feeling of spirituality, making the experience seen on screen have a more emotionally affective impact on the audience. This technique is utilized again later in the film on the second dive (Encounters). The chanting choir of voices is not the same that is heard in the beginning of the film but undeniably evokes the same feeling. The dive becomes analogous to the spiritual or religious experience that one might encounter while in prayer. Another example of music used to add or evoke a specific meaning to an image occurs after Herzog interviews the cell biologist and professional diver Samuel Bowser (Encounters). Bowser has a personal affinity for science fiction doomsday films and sees aspects of these stories in the microscopic world of the single celled organisms he collects on his dives. He begins to compare the creatures to man-eating creatures from science fiction films, and even mentions that they are the reason life evolved and fled from water to seek escape on land after prompted by Herzog. This point coincides directly with the twelfth point in Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” that states:

Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Ames, x).

This shared view of the world beneath the layers of ice in Antarctica is immediately evoked as the camera follows Bowser into the water to explore the horrible world of these microscopic monsters. The music Herzog chooses for this scene sounds like someone is playing the violin off-key. It is loud and jarring and makes the images feel somewhat terrifying. For a moment this is no longer the surreal experience in the opening scene, but the underwater world as seen through Bowser and Herzog’s vision of it as “sheer hell.” The use of music lends itself to the ecstatic truth that Herzog is intent on portraying by revealing Herzog’s interpretation of the images for the audience.

Another technique characteristic of Herzog’s filmmaking style is the use of voice over narration. In his documentaries, Herzog often provides the narration to accompany the images, which implies his films come from a more personal point of view. More often than not, Herzog inserts opinions, thoughts, and personal observations into his narration to create a vocal presence (Ames, 33). Herzog’s experience becomes the experience of the audience. An explicit example of Herzog’s vocal presence through voice over narration appears just before the second dive takes place. Immediately prior to the dive, people were shown creating the hole that the divers would enter the water through, which gives a sense of simple observation. Next, the divers are shown preparing for the dive by putting on various layers of neoprene wetsuits, gloves, and hand warmers. During this moment Herzog’s narration picks up again, drawing comparisons between the silent preparations of the divers with priests preparing for mass. This personal insight from Herzog reshapes and contrasts with the simple observational technique used just before. It forces the audience to reconsider the importance or meaning of the role of the divers, McMurdo, and Antarctica. To reinforce his observation, Herzog continues to assert his presence and opinions through the use of the music that was previously mentioned. Herzog in a way forces his presence on the documentary. Encounters is as much about Herzog’s personal views and experiences as much as it is about life at the McMurdo Research Station, global warming, or Antarctica.

Encounters serves as a clear and concise summation of Herzog’s stylization techniques utilized in his documentaries. The long takes, asynchronous yet affective music, and voice over narration are undeniably characteristic of Herzog’s films, and all of these techniques assert his presence within the film. Even though long takes are meant to be objective and observational, Herzog uses this to create authenticity in the people he films by pushing them out of their comfort zone. The music is specifically chosen to evoke certain emotions or meanings to accompany an image. And the most explicit assertion of his presence is in the voice over narration where he freely provides his views, sometimes corresponding to the music and image. Herzog is able to use these elements in his documentary films to put on a performance for his audience. He stages scenes for the purpose of creating an emotional connection to the audience, to shock or irritate them into a new way of thought.

How to be a Successful Don Corleone (or Die Trying)

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Francis Ford Coppola juxtaposes the stories of Michael and Vito Corleone explicitly in The Godfather: Part II by alternating flashback scenes of a young Vito with the present, showing Michael coming into power as the new Don. Through the contrasting use of lighting and costume, in regards to each of the Dons, Michael becomes a cold-blooded businessman while Vito remains true to his Sicilian roots.

The rise and fall of both Michael and Vito is told through the epic story of the Corleone family. Lighting plays a significant role in capturing the different characters of each of the Dons, which creates a clear juxtaposition between their stories. An example illustrating this is a comparison of Michael and Vito in their office as Don. Vito Corleone is introduced in the opening scene of The Godfather meeting with a minor, rather unimportant character, Amerigo Bonasera. The film opens with a close up on Bonasera, and as the camera slowly pulls away, Vito’s office comes into view. It is a dark and sinister room, draped in shadows from the low-key lighting, with figures looming in the background, barely visible as only a hand is seen or a voice is heard. There is a sense given of the business-like atmosphere of the office as well as the threatening nature of the business itself which Vito is head of. When Vito finally appears on the screen, he is also in shadow, consistent with the lighting in the rest of the room. His eyes are hidden by the shadows and the soft warm lighting highlights his facial features. In contrast to this, the scene immediately following this meeting takes place outside at Connie’s wedding. Vito is shown with his family surrounding him, gathered together to take a family photo. The daylight provides natural high-key lighting to illuminate the celebratory event. The contrast between the different lighting used in correspondence to Vito suggests the separation between his business and his family life. As it is revealed throughout the rest of the movie, family is very important to Vito, and this separation becomes a very important aspect of his character.

On the other hand, at the end of the film, Michael takes over as Don of the Corleone family in an act of extreme violence. While Michael’s order to kill off the other Dons of the rival families in New York is enacted, he attends the baptism of Connie’s son, renouncing sin to become the boy’s godfather. The crosscutting between these two events highlights Michael’s rise to power and the simultaneous fall of his morality. Close-ups of Michael reiterate this point even more. With his face completely in shadow, Michael has renounced any attempt to break free from the illegitimate business of the Corleone family. Since this is revealed at a significant family event, the separation between business and family no longer exists for Michael who has completely immersed himself in the underworld of criminal activity. This is again underscored in The Godfather: Part II as Michael struggles with making the family business a legitimate one. The flashback scenes of young Vito building the business and his family as an immigrant in New York call for a contrast to the story of Michael expanding the business and destroying his family. His continuous commitment to the business conflicts with family, which brings down the barrier between each part of Michael’s life. For instance, in the sequence of Anthony Corleone’s First Communion celebration, Michael is shown holding meetings in his office, calling to mind a direct comparison to the opening of The Godfather. While Connie’s wedding crowd consisted of family and friends, Anthony’s celebration appears to include politicians and business partners. And to emphasize the difference between the two Dons, the lighting is not differentiated between the two locations of outdoor party and interior of the office. Also, side lighting is often used in shots of Michael. Although it is softer in the beginning of The Godfather: Part II, as in the scene in which he meets with a politician at his house in Tahoe with soft natural lighting coming in through the office window, it gradually becomes a more stark contrast towards the end of the film. The shadows nearly envelope his entire face to mark his moral descent as he becomes a more powerful Don.

Another interesting point of departure between the characters of Michael and Vito is the role costume plays in portraying their values. For Vito, his immigrant background remains prominent throughout his life, especially at the end. The reference to his origins can be seen clearly in a scene from The Godfather when a meeting is held with Sollozzo over the Corleone family’s involvement in drug trafficking. Here, all of the men in the meeting are dressed in dark suits that are in vogue for businessmen during this time period. Vito, however, is wearing a brown suit, green shirt, and red tie. As author Anthony Julian Tamburri notes in his essay “Michael Corleone’s Tie: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather,” Vito is “dressed like any Italian immigrant grandfather.” In this meeting, Vito essentially refuses to become involved in the drug trade because his intentions as Don are ultimately about helping his family and community instead of making a profit. His intentions do not correspond with the business-like approach that the other men in the meeting represent. When Vito Corleone meets his end, he is also dressed like an Italian immigrant. His outfit consists of natural colors that indicate his closeness to the garden in which he is situated. The location speaks just as much to his Sicilian origins as does his costume.

In contrast to this, Michael Corleone’s wardrobe in both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II reflects his affinity for the business side of his role as Don. Within the first two chapters of The Godfather saga, Michael’s changing wardrobe also reflects his moral evolution into the lone figure seated in his shadowy throne at the end of Part II. Michael is first introduced on screen in his United States military uniform at Connie’s wedding. Afterwards in following scenes, Michael wears outfits consisting of many shades of brown, reflecting close ties to nature like his father. When Michael sets out to kill those responsible for the attempted assassination on his father, he opts for a gray suit. However, he also wears a brown coat, which reflects his conflicted mindset. This outfit signifies the beginning of Michael’s descent into the criminal world of the family business. The dark gray suit he wears in the scene of the baptism marks his full transition to Don.

Although their approaches are different, Michael and Vito both succeed as Don of the Corleone family. Their success can be defined in different ways, as Vito retains his family while Michael ends up alone in the end. Even though Michael sacrificed his family, his path to success was intended to be a dark and lonely one from the beginning, signified by the use of lighting and costume choice for his character. The events that take place in The Godfather: Part III, especially Michael’s lonely death, are foreshadowed by the closing shot in Part II, which shows Michael as the lone ruler enveloped in the darkness that pervades his success as Don Corleone.