Fact-Checking Herzog's "Ecstatic Truth": Are Those Alligators Really Radioactive Mutants?

Slate's Culture Blog
May 13 2011 5:40 PM

Fact-Checking Herzog's "Ecstatic Truth": Are Those Alligators Really Radioactive Mutants?

In Werner Herzog's latest documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an ex-juggler encounters an Aboriginal painter, a bug-eyed perfumer sniffs at rocks hoping to find hidden caves, and a European man performs "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a vulture-bone flute. This is all in a day's filming for Werner Herzog, and not nearly the strangest part of the film.

No, that would be the albino alligatorsthe ones that (it's strongly implied) have been mutated by radiation from a nearby nuclear power plant. (An epilogue set on a crocodile farm near the titular cave features Herzog musing on these alligatorsthey're not related at all to the main narrative, but Herzog does what Herzog wants.) In a voiceover, Herzog asks in his trademark Bavarian deadpan, "Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?" Setting that question aside for a moment (and the fact that Herzog's "mutant albino crocodiles" are actually alligators), we decided to get to the bottom of the far more troubling mystery: Are those albino alligators really Imutants?!

It's hard to choose just one reason why this claim makes no sense, but it's hardly a scandal that Herzog has included some fiction in his film. Herzog has long been interested in what he calls " the ecstatic truth," which, he explains, "is the enemy of the merely factual." The German auteur has often admitted to deliberately blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction; in a recent GQ profile, he claims to have helped his collaborator, close friend, and mortal enemy Klaus Kinski invent increasingly insulting names for himself for Kinski to use in his autobiography.

Lest your nightmares be filled with mutant reptiles, here are a few reasons the "radioactive albino crocodiles" story doesn't come near to adding up:

The albino crocodiles aren't from the La ferme aux crocodiles greenhouse; they're from Louisiana.

As described in this LIFE magazine slideshow, the albino alligators that live in the biosphere depicted in Cave were actually imported from their natural environment in Louisiana, so they would have been pale-skinned and yellow-eyed long before they got to France and encountered La ferme aux crocodiles' supposed (in the truth according to Herzog) nuclear contamination.

The cooling water from nuclear power plants isn't radioactive.

It is considered safe to return water used to cool nuclear reactors to nature. In fact, it is standard practice to build nuclear power plants next to lakes, rivers, and oceans because they require large amounts of water for cooling.

A briefing on the subject from the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that while "the connection between a nearby lake, river, or ocean and a nuclear power plant might suggest the primary nuclear safety hazard is radioactively contaminated liquid leaking into the water being discharged back into that source... the real hazard involves the water not getting to the plant or the water leaking into the plant."

Albinism in alligators is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

While albino alligators are rare, they do occur naturally in the wild. (No radiation required: Albinism is a congenital disorder and is thought to occur in all vertebrates.) Albino alligators are found most commonly in the Southeastern United States and have been featured in zoos in Ohio, Florida and Tennessee.

***

Herzog made a great film, one that Slate 's Daniel Engber called "one of the best 3-D movies ever made," and I don't mean to detract from its supremely weird ending. Still, viewers should know that the sequence is only about as real as Bad Lieutenant's love scene between iguanas. (Herzog appears to have a thing for reptiles.) Werner Herzog's conclusion may be ecstatically true, but it's empirically false.

Photograph of one of La Ferme Aux Crocodiles' albino alligators courtesy of AFP/Getty Images.

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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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