Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is truly an all-timer for the Bavarian buddha. Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, a doc about meteors that debuts on Apple TV+ on November 13, looks at no less than the way the heavens speak to us insignificant earthlings.
In traditional Herzog style it’s discursive, loopy and unspeakably beautiful. However much Apple TV+ spent on this film, it was a bargain. Because this is the kind of documentary you’ll want to watch over and over again.
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds review
In case you didn’t know already, Herzog isn’t like us. He walked from Munich to Paris to save someone from death and it worked. He’s the only person who has made movies on every continent. He was shot during an interview and didn’t even pause his answer.
He rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car accident because he happened to be passing by. Once, he cleared a section of the Amazon and pushed a boat up a hill without machinery because the script called for it. He cried at the sight of Baby Yoda. He’s just not like you or me.
Beyond his extraordinary life and truly bizarre, Zelig-like existence, he’s also one of the finest filmmakers who ever lived. He began making hallucinatory morality plays like Heart of Glass, Stroszek and the rightly mythic Aguirre: The Wrath of God, about men pushed to monstrousness by the absence of god. His fiction films speak of an unruly, barbarous universe that breeds lost souls and tyrants, victims and murderers, with very little in between. His nonfiction is another story.
Werner Herzog: A man apart
While Herzog’s fiction films seem to exist in a world without any kind of order beyond constants like chaos and murder, he has spent the better part of his later years making documentaries that, with true and unbridled curiosity, try to explain things that seem like acts of God. His nonfiction work is taken with the things men can achieve and comprehend, the ways in which things that look like miracles can be mapped and explained. He exhibits a scientist’s rationality and a poet’s acceptance of the unexplainable.
Perhaps the greatest example of this can be found in his landmark achievement, Encounters at the End of the World. For this 2008 movie about people who live and work in Antartica, he filmed the rituals of penguins, only to land on one who, he is told, will simply wander until it dies. The code written in the bird’s DNA to determine its behavior wills it.
Fire in the sky
While making Encounters, Herzog met British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer professionally. The two then collaborated on 2016’s mesmeric documentary, Into the Inferno, about volcanos and the men who study them.
Fireball is similarly obsessed with the little men at the feet of cosmic giants. Here the topic is space dust as gathered from meteors and asteroids that have landed on Earth.
With Herzog behind the camera and Oppenheimer in front, they talk to scientists, real and amateur, who are transfixed with space dust — “the currency of the cosmos,” as it’s called here, in one moment of gorgeous accidental poetry among many. Herzog and Oppenheimer travel to observatories, rooftops, the Arctic and the tropics to see the ways in which men have studied and/or worshipped at the altar of the real heavens: outer space.
From a tribal dance celebrating the fireball that started all life, to men walking on vast, seemingly endless ice floes (the closest thing to experiencing outer space on Earth, Herzog notes), the ways in which we interact with the rocks that held some crucial information for our genetic code are varied and equally fascinating.
You can sense in the movie an agreeably tense navigation between the real and provable, and the things one needs faith to accept. Herzog is less of a hard-science devotee than Oppenheimer. When a scientist says that embedded in the human genome is material from outer space, Herzog comically demurs: “I’m Bavarian. I must be made of something else.”
But the standoff between the impossible and the provable never comes to a head. Everything here is in an excitable, fun spirit because it is fun to scrape the limits of what we can see and know. Something that frequently gets lost in a culture allergic to facts (as the rash of COVID-19 deniers has lately proven) is just how exciting it can be to learn about the things that seem unexplainable. Being armed with knowledge is one of the few tools against the existential despair that comes with accepting that the universe doesn’t hold the easy truths for which we sometimes yearn.
Pondering unanswerable questions
The pursuit of answers to unanswerable questions has animated Herzog’s documentary work for years, and it finds rich expression here. Whether he’s looking at parades celebrating the start of all life (and thus also starting our demise as organisms and species), looking at space rocks under microscopes, or simply pointing his camera at an Arctic horizon that looks like an optical illusion, Herzog pays homage to the unknowable while probing for an explanation and celebrating the scientists who do this work day after day for no reward beyond knowledge.
Herzog’s documentaries aren’t traditional fact-delivery systems, so they may confuse some people. However, they stand as some of the most rewarding films of the last half-century. His passion and his borderline-whimsical point of view haven’t dimmed or wavered at all in the last several years. That alone is a sort of useful protest against despair. If Herzog can retain his curiosity and his sense of wonder, why shouldn’t we?
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds on Apple TV+
Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.