The prospector with a camera and the beaming huntsman, working things out in the "illimitable spaces" of the end of the world. Robert J. Flaherty introduces the arctic Quebecoise peninsula with a bobbing view of an ice-encrusted panorama nearly as inhospitable as the moon, Nanook "the chief of the Itivimuits" in a rare close-up reveals a weathered-impish visage haloed by a fur hood. (A wonderful little gag turns the kayak into a miniature submarine, one family member after another spill out of it.) Living by the edge of his harpoon, the Eskimo protagonist saunters deftly from floe to floe until he spots a herd of walruses resting by the shore. "The suspense begins," the hunt unfolds with man and mammoth sharing the frame like Chaplin and lion (The Circus) and culminates with the bullish hulk pulled arduously out of the water, a central Flaherty image. The peril of starvation is never far off, "the brass ball of sun a mockery in the sky," yet the natives are people of extraordinary gentleness and humor: survival is the most basic of arts, nature is a breathing canvas. Flaherty’s great achievement is not documentary objectivity but something else, a sort of reconstructed rawness that illuminates the human struggles and explorations on both sides of the lenses. (When Nanook carves his igloo to ward off the incoming snowstorm, the filmmakers are right there shivering by his side.) Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, phonographs and castor oil at the trading post, "l’ombre dolenti nella ghiaccia" (Dante). The tussle with the speared seal is an indelible literalization of the primeval push-pull with meat, a heaving, sliding set-piece featuring unseen forces below the ice and the cavalry in the deep-focus distance. Herzog and Warhol are born here, The Southerner and Stromboli and Pather Panchali are some of the works that carry its DNA. The closing vision of huddled naked skin while the wind outside howls pitilessly embodies not just "the melancholy spirit of the North," but also the timeless need for human warmth in the face of the void. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce