How Werner Herzog’s ‘Fireball’ Blends Film and Science to Capture ‘Awe of the Unknown’ (Video)

TIFF20: “It was clear there was something that had to do with great awe, which is innate in cinema and in science,” German auteur says

Last Updated: September 16, 2020 @ 4:28 PM

Werner Herzog says in his new film “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds” that to be a scientist you need a sense of wonder. That’s a quality that’s been true of just about all of Herzog’s documentaries, and in researching the science of meteorites with Clive Oppenheimer, he aimed to capture the beauty that scientists feel when exploring the unknown.

“Fireball” melds the science and mathematics of meteorites and asteroids with the culture, religion and mythologies that have grown over millennia out of this fascination with these ancient objects from outer space. And by teaming up with Oppenheimer as they did on “Encounters at the End of the World,” Herzog asks bigger, more spiritual questions than just wondering where space rocks came from.

“Clive never has a boring moment in him, and it was very visual, very beautiful, but I knew it had to do with science, but with the awe of discovery, the awe of the unknown that’s coming at us from outer space, and all the questions involved, not only the mythologies,” Herzog told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at the Virtual Studio at TIFF. “It was clear there was something that had to do with great awe, which is innate in cinema and in science.”

Herzog and Oppenheimer travel to meteorite craters all over the world, from the Caribbean to India to Antarctica, and in each place they wanted to research more than just the terrain.

“I wanted to go to an impact crater where we wouldn’t just go to a hole in the ground. We would connect what we were seeing with deep oral traditions about the site, about a star that fell to Earth. The locations were guided by something that was cinematic and visual but also where we could entwine these themes of the natural phenomena with our cultural imaginations,” Oppenheimer said.

Oppenheimer then picked up a meteorite from off his shelf and explained just how much history and wonder is contained within that little fragment.

“You can’t touch an older object than this; this is four and a half billion years old,” he said. “There’s an immense sense of awe again that we have for these objects, and we chased them wherever they landed, whether it be in a museum or a dog kennel.”

But even the moments in “Fireball” in which scientists in glasses and lab coats explain the complexities of mathematics and geology, Herzog frames it all with a visual eye and that same sense of awe. In the film we see remarkable, colorful, microscopic designs on particles of space dust that would be impossible to naturally create on Earth.

“There’s wild, complete theoretical mathematical sorts of things and a field expedition into the middle of nowhere,” Herzog says of the film. “So there are not only impact craters or mythologies, there’s also pure mathematics that are beautiful to behold when you see it exemplified.”

“Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds” will be available on Apple TV+ later this year. Check out TheWrap’s interview with Herzog and Oppenheimer above.