We all know how charming Werner Herzog can be. Since he first narrated his 1974 documentary “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner,” he has learned to put himself as a character in his films behind the camera, as probing questioner and witty commentator. More recently this led to acting jobs, including The Client in Season One of Disney+ series “The Mandalorian.” (Herzog was the first to recognize the power of Baby Yoda, and convinced showrunner Jon Favreau to keep him on set as a puppet.)
Now, the prodigious director of some 20 fiction films (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), 31 documentary features (“Grizzly Man”) and 18 operas (“The Magic Flute”), has fallen in sync with a collaborator on his explorations into the awe and mystery of science, Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer (“Eruptions That Shook the World”).
The two men first met on an Antarctica volcano during filming on Herzog’s only Oscar-nominated film, “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007), the filmmaker said during a recent video interview (below). Oppenheimer stood out among the high-tech down jackets by wearing “a tweed jacket like the old mountain climbers on Mount Everest in the early 20th century, and a thick shawl,” said Herzog. “He stuck out in the way he spoke with enthusiasm.” He responded to Oppenheimer’s “vivacious sort of intelligence,” while Oppenheimer was “enraptured” by Herzog’s “storytelling around the dinner table.” They became fast friends and promised to try to work together; Herzog invited the volcano expert to his Rogue Film School.
The opportunity to collaborate again came when Oppenheimer pitched the subject of volcanoes, which Herzog jumped on right way. “Werner gave me the possibility to make a film, to do cinema in a way that is a million miles away from convention,” said Oppenheimer, who served as the film’s resident on-camera expert. “We embarked on a new approach to documentary making: it’s unscripted, not storyboarded. It’s cinematic, not reportage. It has conversations, not interviews.”
During filming on “Into the Inferno,” Oppenheimer kept an eye out for whizzing fire bombs as Herzog peered into a fiery eruption in Indonesia. “When you do film volcanoes that close, there is some danger,” said Herzog. “Clive understands the signals better than I do. It was prudent for the car to be turned in the direction for escape.” He was in even more danger in Guanajuato, said Oppenheimer. “We were somewhat threatened by our proximity to the business end of the crater.”
Their second film, “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds,” offered less danger, said Herzog: “It’s all right, meteorites do not strike you, if they’re not going to strike you.”
“Fireball” marks Oppenheimer’s first co-director credit. Over three years of research and filming, the scientist and the L.A.-based filmmaker deployed their complementary sets of skills and landed on a new formula for engaging scientific exploration in cinema. Herzog stays behind the camera on a dozen locations around the world, and provides his usual droll narration, describing, for example, Mexico’s remote Chicxulub Puerto, site of the largest known asteroid impact in Earth’s history: “This beach resort is so godforsaken you want to cry.” Oppenheimer helps with the scientific research and casting of the experts he interviews on camera.
“Obviously, we are not going to make a didactic film,” said Herzog. “We are removing and divorcing documentary from journalism. We are going into the excitement of what it means to [bring] the joy of filming, the joy of science, the awe of what we see when a meteorite is coming. All these things have to be in a film, and if it is not in the film we better leave our hands off it.”
For Oppenheimer, their movies also explore “the entanglements of nature with culture,” he said. “It’s not just the scientific volcano, it’s what does that glow from the crater at night mean to the people that live near it, and the communities around the world that have built their cosmologies around aspects of the natural environment, whether it’s the night sky or shooting stars and comets. I have a deep fascination for the way nature and culture are intertwined around the world.”
Herzog was already in the editing room when Oppenheimer made his own Antarctic ice discovery of a rare meteorite, caught on film by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger from a helicopter. “It was a great thrill,” Oppenheimer said. “I’d never been up on the mainland polar plateau, I didn’t know what to expect of the flat and white terrain: how cinematic is it going to be? There was an extraordinary quality of light refracted in the blue glacial ice, the wind blowing, the snow snakes at our feet. We’d walk downwind looking from side to side. I had done this for several hours. I had the double satisfaction to hold the oldest thing you can touch. It turned out to be a rare igneous rock, it was in space 4.5 billion years, landed on the polar plateau and had a journey through the ice.”
Oppenheimer never thought he’d be able to smell a meteor 4 billion-5 billion years old. “They’re chock full of organic molecules, amino acids and sugars, that may have led to life,” he said.
“It’s how part of the universe smells,” said Herzog.
“It’s like the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag,” said Oppenheimer.
The duo are looking for the right thing to collaborate on next. “I hope we have at least a trilogy in us,” said Oppenheimer.
“We don’t have a precise project, but I bet Clive will come up with something fiendish,” said Herzog, who’s waiting for the pandemic to lift so he can resume a workshop in the Colombian Amazon jungle with 20 young filmmakers.
Is he watching Season 2 of “The Mandalorian”? “No,” he said. “I may have been killed off in Season 1. I don’t know.”
“Fireball” will be available November 13 on Apple TV+.