Encounters at the End of the World
Written, directed, and narrated by Werner Herzog
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street
June 11–24, 2008
Last year, Film Forum showed 35 short and feature-length documentaries by Werner Herzog. Although the maverick director is best-known for his films about people in extreme situation -- like the “wild child” of The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser and the crazed hero of Fitzcarraldo, who wanted to build an opera house in the rain forest -- he’s far more persuasive while recording the simultaneous absurdity and beauty of life in his many non-fiction films.
To shoot his latest entry in a genre that he’s made all his own, the director went about as far from “normal” civilization as possible, to Antarctica. Encounters at the End of the World is the latest chapter in Herzog’s continuing exploration of the natural wonders of life on earth as seen through the prism of his own skewed, sympathetic, but skeptical sensibility.
Herzog follows the scientists and other personnel who reside at McMurdo Station, an American base more than 2,000 miles from New Zealand. We watch as they dive into the deepest, darkest water underneath several feet of thick ice; study microorganisms to further their research into these tiniest living creatures; discuss the sexuality and psychology of penguins while watching them sit on eggs and waiting for them to hatch; and work along the rim of an active volcano to take necessary readings of the lava flow.
The extreme danger of the scientists’ work must appeal greatly to Herzog: he has also filmed the burning Kuwaiti oil rigs after the first Iraq War in Lessons of Darkness and shot The Dark Glow of the Mountains, a study of mountain climbers trying to become the first to scale two massive Himalayan peaks without returning to their camp.
In his earlier non-fiction films, Herzog obviously sympathized with the eccentrics he filmed doing what they loved to do. In Encounters, however, he seems more ambivalent; his interviews with these committed men and women accentuate their strangeness. They readily admit that they are different, and joke about how they are “professional dreamers” who went to live at the very bottom of our planet. But Herzog adds his own raised eyebrow by leaving the camera on a subject for a few extra moments after a particularly uncomfortable exchange, or summarizing another person’s story because it’s too long-winded.
He has certainly used this technique before, but now there seems to be an innate pessimism boiling over. Herzog may have decided that, whatever valuable discoveries are being made, soiling the pristine beauty of Antarctica isn’t worth it. (He takes a side trip to the cabin in which Ernest Shackleton and his men stayed nearly a century ago, noting that the race to be the first to the South Pole spurred later “adventurers” who found esoteric ways of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records.) When Herzog wonders aloud what future alien archaeologists will make of what’s left behind of our civilization, it's pretty clear that he feels mankind has already jumped the shark, so to speak. Still, the surreally striking images found throughout the film -- such as the graceful if grotesque underwater creatures scurrying about, and the successful launching of a balloon for further experimentation -- seem to refute his own fatalism
These and other memorable moments are artfully caught by cameraman Henry Kaiser. They serve as valuable evidence that our much-maligned planet is still a dreamlike place of astonishment and mystery.