In 2007, Werner Herzog made a movie about Antarctica called Encounters at the End of the World, where he met the Cambridge University geographer and seismologist Clive Oppenheimer. The resulting partnership has opened up whole new adventures for Herzog in pop anthropology and the history of ideas. Together, Herzog and Oppenheimer made Into the Inferno in 2016, with Oppenheimer largely in front of the camera and Herzog behind, supplying the unmistakable rasping voiceover with its occasional flourishes of nihilist black comedy. Into the Inferno was all about how volcanos create strange belief systems and supplicant ideologies in the humans around them.
Now Herzog and Oppenheimer are back (and Oppenheimer gets a co-directing credit) with another nimbly curious and fascinating film on a similar topic: meteorites. This is a rare example of modern documentary film-making that uses voiceover – that inimitable Herzog growl.
Volcanos threaten a lava impact from below, and meteorites are always about to land something cataclysmic on us from above. Weird things spring up in the blast radius. The shock and awe and destruction, and humanity’s stunned realisation that our lives can suddenly be wiped out, mutate over millennia into religious rituals intended to placate or celebrate this dark god of destruction. But also, like space exploration in reverse, meteorites might have brought prototype organic matter with them from the distant reaches of the universe.
Oppenheimer and Herzog journey to Wolfe Creek, the huge and rather terrifying meteorite crater in Western Australia (the indigenous people call it Kandimalal), the result of an impact 120,000 years ago creating a vast circular depression. The film juxtaposes it with Mecca in Saudi Arabia and speculates that the precious “black stone” there is in fact a meteorite. They also show up in Ensisheim in north-eastern France, where in 1492 a boulder-sized meteorite crashed to Earth, and its meaning was earnestly discussed: a portent that was solemnly deemed to be in favour of the existing political status quo, and the date’s Columbus coincidence was to reinforce its significance for years to come.
The film ranges far afield and interviews an engaging and eclectic mix of people. The amateur scientist and jazz musician Jon Larsen is said to have found “micro-meteorites” the size of match heads on the roof of a sports arena in Oslo – and who can say that he isn’t right? Herzog and Oppenheimer also talk to the head of Nasa’s planetary defense coordination office, whose job is to forestall a big meteor impact of the sort that carried off the dinosaurs. The plan, apparently, is to launch a giant nuclear bomb out into space and detonate it just next to the hurtling meteorite to shove it off course – no kidding.
It is easy to assume that a giant meteor impact of this sort is prehistoric by its very nature, something that is only imaginable as part of a distant past – but of course it could happen again at any time. Herzog is incidentally generous and enthusiastic about Mimi Leder’s film Deep Impact (1998), imagining just this kind of scenario. Which is what gives something eerie to Herzog and Oppenheimer’s visit to the world-historically important site of Chicxulub Pueblo, in Mexico’s Yucatán, the site of the massive dinosaur-destroying meteor event. Herzog takes his camera around the desolate streets and rasps that the place is “so godforsaken you want to cry”, adding for good measure that the “dogs are just too dim-witted to understand”.
But can any of us? One of the sprightliest parts of the film is an interview with the historian Simon Schaffer, who talks wittily about the Ensisheim meteorite and how humanity went about its task of assigning meaning to it. Yet it is not simply a case of people attaching self-serving significance to an arbitrary event. The event generates meaning with its crash: it throws up shards of meaning like stones and debris. The meteorite is itself a shard or perhaps a puzzle piece, and it tells us that we on Earth are also a shard or the puzzle piece. Earth and meteorite are moving parts of a gigantic whole that we are unable to comprehend.
• Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is available on Apple TV+ from 13 November.