Film-maker Werner Herzog travels to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, looking to capture the continent's beauty and investigate the characters living there.Film-maker Werner Herzog travels to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, looking to capture the continent's beauty and investigate the characters living there.Film-maker Werner Herzog travels to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, looking to capture the continent's beauty and investigate the characters living there.
"There is no point that is south of the south pole." That's a no brainer, but have you ever thought about that before reading that statement? Such a simple and obvious saying, yet there's something quite poignant buried within it. It's pointed out by one of Werner Herzog's dreamers - a philosopher and part time forklift driver - that he found on his encounters at the end of the world.
Herzog begins his new documentary warning us that this will not be another film about fluffy penguins; his questions about nature are far different. For example, why does a sophisticated creature like a chimp not make use of inferior creatures - they could saddle goats and ride off into the sunset. Herzog delivers with a pondering and quizzical film. Encounters at the End of the World is about the intricacies - and insanities - of life on Antarctica. His visit was spurred on by the footage taken by one of the under-ice divers, a friend of his. He opens the film with the images of what appears to be hauntingly blue skies and bubbly white clouds, but its not skies nor clouds, but the clear waters and hulking ice. Herzog, always fascinated with the oddity and great beauty of the natural world, fills his documentary with stunning images and sequences. Underwater divers film strange creatures under the ice, and massive ice formations while navigating their way back to the single hole in the ice, without tether lines to guide them. Volcanologists traverse dormant lava tubes, only having to be weary of poison gases that can be found in some.
Herzog's base of operations is McMurdo, the largest settlement on the continent. He describes it as an ugly mining town. And it is ugly. It's filled with scientists, wanderers, adventurers and dreamers, all looking to 'jump off the margins of the map,' as one observer puts it. It also has "abominations" such as aerobics and yoga studios, even an ATM. Before he go in the field, he, like everyone else, must attend survival school, where among other things students learn to build shelter, and then must spend the night in it. They also partake in a white out simulation, achieved by wearing white buckets on their heads. They wander out to find the instructor, playing a lost peer. As they get disorientated, the scene becomes comical, but also points out our inferiority when up against nature.
Herzog does make a stop to visit some penguins briefly, and the man who studies them - reportedly no longer much of a conversationist with humans since he spends so much time isolated with penguins. Herzog's questions are amusing, but thoughtful. "Are there gay penguins?" "Is there such thing as madness among penguins?" The answer to that last question leads to one of the films most memorable and profound sequences.
The film at once is an admiration of those who find themselves working at the end of the world, and an admonition of the manipulation of adventure. Herzog wastes no time on the uninteresting people there. He talks with a scientist who describes a horrifying world that would tear us apart - if it were not too small to be seen by the human eye. He also shows old science fiction movies and warns of our fate. Some of them gather during the night, still day lit, for a jam session on top of their hut.Another woman discusses how she rode through South America in a sewer pipe, then zips herself into a travel bag. Another man, a plumber, says his hands prove that he is descended from Aztec and Inca royalty. On the other hand, he admonishes the notion of adventure for conquer. Shackleton came not for the sake of adventure, but to claim the South Pole. He almost lampoons some of his subjects, but is never disrespectful and clearly admires all of them.
The name of the film is something of a double entendre. Herzog frequently ponders another life after humans are gone. What would they think of us when they come see what we're doing in Antarctica? There are references to global warming and threats to our planet, but Herzog is no issue of the day crusader. So many other documentaries would condescend to us, and have. Green has become the fad of the day, annoying many instead of enlightening. Herzog is too much of an enigma to pander or preach to us, and that's part of the reason why Encounters at the End of the World is so special.
Werner Herzog is a man incapable of making a dull film. What is entirely true in this documentary is questionable as it is in his others. His pursuit of ecstatic truth - semi-fictions to capture the essence of what is more truthful than truth - gives him license to embellish. But no matter, if he has some of his interviewees script some details, I do no care to know which. I'm happy being mesmerized by the stories they tell as is.
For me, a Werner Herzog film is like pulling on a warm pair of slippers on a cold winter day, and pulling up by the fire to read a favorite book. Herzog was one of the first filmmakers to draw me into the world of great film-making, and for that I forever owe him a great debt of gratitude. And it was Roger Ebert who lead me to him, so how fitting that this beautiful film was dedicated to him.
- Dec 21, 2008