Encounters at the End of the World
Director : Werner Herzog
Screenplay : Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2008
It should surprise no one who is even casually familiar with the films of Werner Herzog that Encounters at the End of the World, his documentary about Antarctica and the colorful people who choose to live and work there, is the anti-March of the Penguins. While he never explicitly mentions that film by name, he does mention in his droll voice-over narration near the beginning of the film that he told his sponsoring agency, the National Science Foundation, that he would not be returning with a film about penguins, not that they probably expected him to.
No, Herzog is after something deeper, darker, and infinitely more unnerving than the mating and birthing rituals of emperor penguins. Unfortunately, exactly what he’s after is never quite clear even though at several points he lists questions that intrigue him, one of them being why chimpanzees, despite their extreme intelligence, have never ridden on animals of lower intelligence while, at the same time, some species of ants enslave other bugs and milk them. But, when going into a Herzog documentary, this is what you have to expect. He’s looking for everything that’s dark and dangerous and astonishing, and it should surprise no one that he regularly finds it.
Like virtually all of Herzog’s films, Encounters is inherently autobiographical in that it was born out of the director’s current obsession, and everything in the film is explicitly filtered through his consciousness. In the film, Herzog notes that he became interested in documenting Antarctica after seeing underwater film footage shot beneath the ice by his friend Henry Kaiser, who produced the film and also helped compose the haunting musical score. Herzog was so captivated by the strangeness and beauty and danger that he had to check it out for himself, which is essentially what compels the entire film. Rather than having a rigid structure or a dominating theme, Encounters is a journey through Herzog’s mind as he explores the new terrain to satisfy his own indomitable curiosity.
As a result, Encounters has a slightly meandering and unfocused quality, yet each sequence is a revelation of some kind--some entrancing, others mundane--and all filtered through Herzog’s unique sensibility. While the film is ostensibly about the frozen continent itself, Herzog is equally intrigued by the thousand or so people who inhabit the McMurdo Research Station, many of whom he interviews, but not all of whom he seems to respect equally. Herzog is clearly intrigued by the scientists who live and work there, especially one who dives beneath the ice and talks at length about the terrifying microscopic organisms that live there and another who is trying to study subatomic particles. He also gives quite a bit of time to a pair of volcanologists who get up close and personal with an active volcano and offer tips on what to do if the volcano explodes and shoots lava bombs into the air (in short, don’t turn your back and run). On the other hand, Herzog humorously shows limited patience for various hippie types who seem to have gravitated toward the end of the world for lack of anywhere else to go. A Ph.D. in linguistics who now tends to a greenhouse and a woman who has spent her entire adult life randomly traveling the world are cut short in the film, with Herzog summarizing their lengthy stories for them in voice-over. While the director clearly felt compelled to include them as part of his portrait of McMurdo, it wasn’t to the point that they deserved their own voice.
The other sections of the film document the terrible grandeur of Antarctica itself, which Herzog contextualizes with documentary footage of Ernest Shackleton, one of the British explorers who first conquered the frozen terrain, although he has not earned Herzog’s respect because he did it for his own glory, rather than to answer the kinds of nagging philosophical questions that drive his own endeavors. Herzog’s camera roams across the landscape, giving us amazing images of icy vistas, icebergs larger than many countries, and underwater landscapes populated by strange creatures that might as well have come from outer space. The alien nature of the land is repeatedly invoked, and it is an apt comparison because it is like nowhere else on earth, which is most likely why Herzog was drawn to it.
His films, both fictional and documentary, have reveled in the extremes of both nature and human behavior, which are often pitted against each other. Similar to Grizzly Man (2005), his documentary about the tragic death of preservationist Timothy Treadwell, in Encounters at the End of the World Herzog finds what may be a near perfect distillation of the human/nature dialectic, in which the ferocity of human intelligence and ego are working to not only survive in, but to understand and therefore in some way conquer, the most inhospitable part of the world. Herzog’s fascination with the human mind is trumped only by his fear and loathing of the powerful forces of nature that continually crush it. In this regard, while Encounters is filled with searing and memorable images, the one that is perhaps most striking is also the saddest and most telling: a solitary penguin, who has lost his sense of direction for reasons that are never unexplained, wanders determinedly into the middle of the continent, where Herzog intones he will likely find only death. While this is easily the film’s most obvious anti-March of the Penguins moment, it is also fundamentally Herzogian in its encapsulation of the unstoppable force that is nature, and all we can do is sit back, powerless, and watch it unfold.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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