Art and empathy


Saw the new(ish) Werner Herzog documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” last night.  It was a predictably thorny yet beautiful affair – long passages of amazing visuals and (perhaps literally) religious music, intercut with the ramblings of a group of people who would be best described as extensions of Herzog’s own mind.  The depressed scientist, the lost linguist, the pipe-fitter descended from Aztec royalty, the divers who refuse tether to safety so they can explore farther beneath the ice.  Yeah, I’d say this was the perfect cast for a documentary where the director can intone solemn voiceovers about the inevitable extinction of mankind and how much he hates sunlight, yet also rhapsodize about the inexplicable, awe-inspiring wonder of the universe.

So, it was a hell of a movie.  I’d expect no less.

The bit that really stuck with me, though – and I believe my two friends who saw it with me felt the same way – was a short interview with a man who escaped from communist Russia and eventually found himself in Antarctica.  Strangely, few reviews of the movie have mentioned this man.  For me it was the movie’s most poignant element.  Herzog introduces him by alluding to some tragedy in his past, some great and sad difficulty in getting out of his homeland.  Then he asks the man to describe it for us, and the man just… can’t.  After some seconds of awkward silence, Herzog tells him he doesn’t have to, and the man thanks him.  He’s much happier to show us the contents of his always-packed-and-ready rucksack.  The film swiftly moves on to the lighter subject of how he fits a paddle and rubber raft in his small bag (apparently, just in case he finds himself on a river).

This moment of pained silence, a man struggling for words, some way to explain whatever it was that wrecked him – it’s affecting.  We don’t know what horrific events befell him, and no swooning strings on the soundtrack cue us to weep.  But somehow, with a few vague words of introduction from the director and a few seconds watching this man try to express the inexpressable, we feel another human’s bottomless grief.  It’s an amazing thing.  It made me consider how empathy must be at the center of so much great art.  Because without empathy, this part of the film is nothing – it’s boring, awkward, a meaningless interlude that goes on too long without conclusion.  But with it, we feel deeply sorry for a man whose dark memories we can’t even guess at. 

And when he proudly strews the contents of his rucksack on a table, and explains that he’s always ready to run at a moment’s notice, we understand.  This isn’t just some oddball to be laughed at or condescended to.  He is wounded.  This is what the world can do to a person.  This is, but for the vagaries of pure chance, what it could do to us.


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