Otherworldly: Herzog films, excellently, another rugged landscape--Antarctica--in 'Encounters at the End of the World.' (Photo courtesy THINKFilm)

Herzog's 'Encounters at the End of the World'

Dennis Harvey June 26, 2008

Given his eternal fascination with extremes of location, lifestyle and filming logistics, it makes sense that Werner Herzog’s latest documentary was shot in Antarctica—and as he wants to make clear right away, it is NOT about penguins. Encounters at the End of the World duly has some stunning shots of landscapes (and seascapes). But in typically perverse Herzog fashion it’s far less about nature than about the people who find themselves living and working—if only for a few months per year—in this place most inhospitable to mankind.

These "professional dreamers and full-time travelers," as one resident puts it, comprise an endearingly eccentric character cast in a movie that is quite possibly this fabled filmmaker’s funniest, fictive or not. Herzog has both mellowed with age—let’s face it, there weren’t a lot of laughs in the classic likes of Aguirre the Wrath of God or Every Man for Himself and God Against All—and grown humorously cranky. Small wonder: The world is indeed in a shitty state, particularly with global warming hanging over its future like a noose.

Related concerns duly surface in Encounters, inevitably. (One scientist notes with considerable irony that it will be "interesting" to see what happens when icebergs the size of entire nations begin melting into the oceans—and they are already moving northward toward warmer water.) But Herzog is mostly interested in the humans here, whose job titles range from "volcanologist" (Antarctica’s Mt. Arabus is one of the world’s most active volcanos) to journeyman plumber. There’s no lack of philosophical insight all along the job-prestige scale; indeed, the more mundane the duties, the more folks seem to have been drawn here to find a community of fellow seekers.

Not that they sit around in Rodin’s "Thinker" postures all day (which would get tiring, since five months out of the year daylight is 24/7). Some have entertaining special skills—like the woman whose party trick is to zip herself into a suitcase to "travel as hand luggage," or the man who once escaped from behind the Iron Curtain under unspecified "tragic circumstances" and now lives with his survivalist emergency kit (including blowup kayak and EZ-assembly oars) at arm’s length, ready for personal evacuation from any situation at a moment’s notice.

About 1100 people live at the U.S.-funded McMurdo Station each summer (Oct. through Feb.). When Herzog arrives there, lured by his musician-slash-diver friend Henry Kaiser’s extraordinary underwater footage (Kaiser also produced and wrote this doc’s original score), he has an immediate allergic reaction to this place that looks "like an ugly mining town" and sports not only several bars but yoga and aerobics classes, an ATM machine, and a bowling alley. Before he can head out "into the field," however, he must first complete a compulsory survival-skill class that at one point requires everyone to stumble around wearing a plastic bucket on their head in order to simulate "white-out."

That ordeal over, he commences visiting various researchers. One group studies seals who are surprisingly unperturbed at being manhandled for science’s sake, and emit otherworldly noises while swimming that one woman not-inaccurately says "sound like Pink Floyd or something." Another, a sci-fi fan, describes the microscopic sea creatures he scrutinizes as monsters living "in a horribly violent world" that higher life forms likely developed from in order to escape. Finally interviewing a penguin expert he’s warned is taciturn and untalkative, Herzog flusters him by asking questions like, "Is there insanity amongst penguins?" (turns out there kinda is) and whether it’s true some among the tuxedoed species are gay (our expert is more doubtful about that).

No Herzog movie would be complete without some exotic, ravishing visual lyricism and a certain pondering the mystery of existence itself. But the warmth, humor, and occasional downright silliness flared in much of Encounters at the End of the World make it an odds-on early favorite for Most Purely Enjoyable Documentary of 2008.