By Iris Morrell
In the early 20th century, an assortment of young men set out on journeys as they competed to be first to reach the South Pole. Most of them failed, and many of them died. We refer to this now as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. At a time when conquest and discovery were immanent, and meaningful goals and the cultural milieu still acted at the bequest of Enlightenment-style modernism, young men consistently risked their lives and the lives of others in search of adventure, or some other unachievable goal. In the Anthropocene, or the age of anthropogenic climate change by its many other names, reverence for such wasteful endeavors seems misguided but the blind admiration for wilderness survives. We don’t have a new Shackleton necessarily, but we still live with these stories as we attempt to craft our own.
Examining the causes and consequences of climate change is a task impeded by a wide variety of theoretical obstacles. First, there is the issue of scale: the kind of suffering caused by climate disaster, to human and non-human animals alike, is so immense that no individual can truly comprehend the risk. Then, for the assimilated individuals living in late capitalism, there is the challenge of recognizing that our own means of material sustenance, and the very same system of mechanized production which has allowed for our lifestyles, is responsible for this unprecedented suffering. For these reasons and others, there has been a continual effort by environmentalists to attempt to force people to understand the complicated meaning of climate change through dry statistics and scientific analyses - to varying degrees of success. Indeed, before worldwide action can take place, there must first be worldwide recognition of its necessity.
Director and filmmaker Werner Herzog is an artist widely admired for his success in this venture. Among many, he is well known for two films titled Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Grizzly Man (2005). Despite the intervening decades of a successful career, the two films share remarkable similarities that indicate, in many ways, the appeal of Herzog’s highly specialised genre. In Fitzcarraldo, we meet an eager and enthused zealot who, with a fervor greater than religion, seeks to introduce the uninterested people of the Amazon to the beauty of the opera by building an opera house in the jungle. In the hours of film that ensue, Fitzcarraldo devises and enacts a scheme to accrue the necessary funds by becoming a rubber baron and transporting a boat to a formerly inaccessible stretch of river to set up shop. The whole affair is bankrolled by his wealthy lover, and the intimacy they share is magnified by the estrangement Fitzcarraldo feels with the rest of his artless cohabitants in Peru.
When the operation fails, having sacrificed lives and all of the money endowed, Fitzcarraldo is still beloved and forgiven by the ones who sent him off, and admired even more sincerely by those who understand the difficulty of his venture. In a final scene simultaneously moving and absurd, Fitzcarraldo carries a velvet-upholstered chair atop a boat as it sails down the Amazon, for he promised it to a pig who sat beside him in Peru and listened to the opera tunes he played with a reverence that Fitzcarraldo recognized in no human. Besides the pig, his beautiful settler girlfriend, and the hundred some indigenous people who supported his scheme with their lives and their labor long after the initial crew had abandoned ship, Fitzcarraldo felt he had no supporters, and in spite of their love, he was still determinedly alone.
In Grizzly Man, we meet a similar character whose story is real, and told through the lens of found footage. Timothy Treadwell was a well-known American environmentalist—by some definitions of the term—who, for years, spent every summer living among the Kodiak grizzly bears of Alaska. The story is complicated, and much like Fitzcarraldo, it does not offer the satisfaction of a protagonist finally achieving the recognition he feels he deserves. After years of camping, filming, as well as advocating for the bears in the winter months, Timothy Treadwell died, tooth and claw, being eaten by a bear. His girlfriend, who is not featured in Treadwell’s films aside from a brief static image occurring once, also died there. Treadwell was estranged from other people and the society among which he once lived. It wasn’t opera, but the bears and the rugged nature itself had been Treadwell’s mission and the embodiment of what he sought.
In the deep Bavarian accent with which he narrated Grizzly Man, Herzog poses questions with no obvious answer, and it is difficult to imagine anyone else telling precisely the same story. Even in the case of Fitzcarraldo, a film which came much earlier and tells its story without featuring Herzog’s voice, the analogies between Herzog himself and the protagonist are remarkable. In the regions of the Amazon rainforest where Fitzcarraldo was filmed, Herzog is known not so much for the film itself as the process of destruction that followed its production. The nameless, unspeaking indigenous group who populated Fitzcarraldo’s ship and provided the labor for his venture was composed of real indigenous people living in the area in which they filmed, and for years Herzog fought with the tribe and their leadership. At one point, writes anthropologist Michael F. Brown, a group of indigenous people burned down the entire set, being careful to injure no one.
Herzog’s acclaim comes at a pivotal moment in academic and popular discourse, in which the looming threat of climate change has forced many of us to consider our fates with imminent sincerity. Popular fascination with his characters can be expected; after all, their willingness to abandon material comforts in search of something abstract is spiritual, religious, enviable. In his 2016 book The Great Derangement, author Amitav Ghosh described the necessity of stories which show us the possibility of a society radically different from our own. Even to those most convinced by the threat of climate change, the threat is often so scary because it is so vague. By demonstrating characters who are willing to make sacrifices - and in turn, showing how great these sacrifices can be - Herzog encourages his viewers to confront the unthinkable. How do we conceive of nature, and how do we conceive ourselves as its protectors?
And yet, if Treadwell and Fitzcarraldo are intended to be the leaders of our green revolution, our prospects are certainly grim. It is no coincidence that these men are societal rejects, for they have no families, no true human compatriots, and the women at their sides play roles merely subordinate to the spiritual and aesthetic longing felt by them. The characters are perverse, but they are also believable; Herzog’s voice itself serves as a constant reminder of the masculine search for aesthetic experience. Seeking greatness at nearly any cost, they abandon society and work for themselves. It is the spirit of entrepreneurship, glory, and conquest which drives them; not any true love, or respect for life itself.
Herzog, Fitzcarraldo, and Treadwell join in a legacy of thousands of years of worldly exploration and resource extraction. Herzog’s films often seem assaulting in their originality and shamelessness, but what separates these stories from any other of a Western man violating wilderness and indigenous society in his pursuit of glory? Cowboys, colonists in The Heart of Darkness, and Shackleton himself have all composed stories of destruction and selfishness.Yet these stories did nothing to address the degradation of the things they loved, and instead perpetuated masculine conquest and all of its destructive connotations: death of indigenous peoples, extinction of species, spread of disease, violence. Innovation is a bold claim to make, because although Herzog adapted his genre to the medium of documentary film, he still tells the same time-old story of men conquering worlds, eschewing humanity in pursuit of something no one else could see. Shackleton was not a hero - his aspirations were not bold, and he still failed to achieve them. c
The viewers of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man are never asked if these men really felt any kind of divine inspiration; they are meant to trust that it exists. Even in moments when Timothy Treadwell’s love for the grizzly bears reveals its attendant complexity - when he is eaten by a bear, despite the understanding he alleged between them - Treadwell’s own conviction is not shaken, but merely the viewer’s. In regarding Herzog himself, it is similarly tempting for viewers and fans to recede to a point of abject admiration, with no space for criticism. Herzog’s films are unrelenting in their pursuit of the abstract, but that cannot be enough. Just as we can learn to question and criticize the fearless men who conquered Antarctica, the Amazon, and who eschewed all humanity in pursuit of the wild and beautiful, we must learn to question the ways in which their stories are told.
Iris Morrell is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Comparative Literature. Her research interests include environmental humanities, 19th century German literature, Marxist feminist theory, and contemporary poetry.
Art by Ann-Kathrin Görisch
This article first appeared in the print edition of Anthroposphere Issue III. If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.