It is evident that biologist Luc Jacquet is fascinated by penguins. This fascination arises when he collaborates as a cameraman on “Der Kongress der Pinguine” (1993) by Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf. Not only the penguins themselves, but also the extreme conditions under which they give birth and raise their young, appear to fascinate Jaquet immensely. This is clearly visible in “March of the Penguins” (“La marche de l’empereur”) in which emperor penguins accomplish their annual odyssey in Antarctica.
Emperor penguins spend most of their lives in the water, but their mating and nesting sites are on land, on huge expanses of ice in the ocean, where they also raise their young until they become independent. This produces impressive and sometimes endearing images: long lines of penguins traveling endless distances across the ice sheets on their way to their nesting sites or back to the water, large groups of breeding male penguins braving horrifying snowstorms, the hatching of the eggs and the penguin chicks that explore the ice world. The underwater pictures of the females looking for food after laying the eggs are also fantastic. Furthermore, there are of course beautiful images of the sometimes dazzlingly beautiful South Pole region itself: the enormous ice plains over which the penguins move, a fiery red sunset in a landscape with icebergs, aurora that sweeps and swirls across the sky …
While watching that movie, you get different feelings. Firstly, an enormous surprise about evolution: how is it possible that it has resulted in such a difficult reproductive process. That the survival of an individual and species requires so much effort and persistence is occasionally embarrassing. Second, you wonder how “March of the Penguins” could have been made, how the crew managed to shoot 120 hours of film under these conditions. Even in a comfortably warm cinema you get cold when you see the little men with their heads bent over, sheltering from the icy storm winds. Incidentally, a good example of social Darwinism can be found here: the penguins protect each other from the cold with their body heat and take turns shuffling to the center of the group to warm up, and then to serve at the edges again.
“March of the Penguins” is not a real documentary. Little or no information about how and why the penguins’ behavior is provided. And that is not overcome by the fact that much is still unknown about the life of the penguins, as noted in the credits. The voice-over of the Dutch version (comedian Urbanus, who is not always easy to understand due to his Flemish accent) is limited to sporadic commentary. That may be to make things easier for the young viewers. Just like the sometimes highly romanticized view of penguin life; it is clear that penguins’ lives are harsh, but that predators contribute at least as much as the dire conditions is not really clear. The effects of the greenhouse effect are not discussed at all.
Jacquet is laconic about this criticism. He does not want to scare the public away with scientific or moralistic treatises. He wanted to make a film about the South Pole, the area to which he lost his heart, and it worked out wonderfully.