[12 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who works in two distinct arenas. The first can be categorized as ‘man vs. his inherent nature’, the struggles of a being against his or her own psychological and biological predispositions. This is seen most clearly in such important films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Stroszek, and Fitzcarraldo. The second is ‘man vs. nature’ itself. Unlike many directors who stay comfortably in the fictional zone, Herzog loves to explore the real world around him, focusing on such unusual subjects as handicaps (The Land of Silence and Darkness), heroism (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), and human frailty (Grizzly Man). Now comes his amazing exploration of Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World. But unlike most travelogues, Herzog is more interested in the people than the place.
After seeing some astonishing footage of divers under the massive ice flows of the South Pole, filmmaker/provocateur Werner Herzog decides to visit the desolate continent to see the wonders of Antarctica firsthand. He soon discovers that the pristine mountains and overwhelming snow banks house an eclectic group of drifters, scientists, and individuals simply looking to escape from the so-called civilized world. There’s the former businessman who now drives a huge transport bus. There’s the biologist making his last dive ever. There’s the linguist whose PhD was destroyed when superstition literally forced the language he was studying to become extinct, and the researcher whose spent most of her life hitchhiker around the planet. In between we get breathtaking looks at the Antarctic vistas, an insider guide to McMurdo Station, and enough classic Herzog philosophizing to put everything in ethereal perspective.
Leave it to Werner Herzog to take the mainstream memory most have of the wintery landscape of Antarctica and purposely piss all over it. As part of his remarkable motion picture, Encounters at the End of the World, the aggressive auteur finds a hermetic penguin expert and proceeds to deconstruction the entire March of the Happy Feet myth. “Are there gay penguins?” he asks, curious if these loveable little family film icons are “depraved” and “amoral” at heart. When the scientist sits back, stunned, he jumps into another line of attack. “Are there insane penguins?” he chides, some future footage suggesting that a few of these birds go off their nut and chase imaginary oceans far away from their breeding and feeding grounds. This is typical of Encounters. As with most of what he does, Herzog takes his title quite literally.
It’s the same when he meets a journeyman maintenance man who proclaims his Aztec/Incan heritage, his elongated rib cage and oddly matching middle and index fingers providing the proof of lineage. Instead of focusing on his job as part of the continent’s community, he simply lets the man marvel at his possible regal heredity. Elsewhere, a former prisoner from “behind the Iron Curtain” shows off his combination adventure/survival kit. Weighing no more than 20 kilos, it contains everything from food, a tent, and a sleeping bag, to an inflatable raft and a paddle. “I am always prepared,” he claims, asking Herzog to stop filming so he can get his pack back together before he’s “called” off on another incredible journey.
With its focus firmly on the individuals inhabiting this massive slab of ice and frozen soil, many may think that Herzog misses the point of Antarctica’s inherent grandeur. But all throughout Encounters at the End of the World, the filmmaker finds images that actually reflect back on the people we meet, and help us make the connection between their apparent eccentricities and the reasons they stay so far from the rest of civilization. During the final dive of a noted researcher, we see a stunning alien underworld, ocean floor riddled with sci-fi sea life and other jaw-dropping discoveries. Discussions of a nearby glacier also prove awe-inspiring, as the sheer size and scope of the flow confounds common thought.
This is not new terrain for Herzog. He is the king of taking private passions and obsessions and juxtaposing them against the actual elements the characters inhabit. Here, a pair of scientists celebrate a major discovery by playing blues-based rock-n-roll at maximum volume, their outdoor concert sweeping across the vast flat white locale. Yet when a group of visitors are forced into a two day survival camp to test their wilderness mantle, we see them struggle to complete the most basic backwoods techniques. Herzog argues in the film that it’s a crime for places like Antarctica and Mt. Everest to be stained by human interaction. To him, some places in nature deserve to stay untouched, though he also acknowledges that, nowadays, that’s next to impossible.
So in some ways, Encounters at the End of the World is Herzog’s time capsule for a continent rapidly changing. While exploration and education are still the area’s leading lures, many are now trying out their South sea legs in a mad gasp to see those fuzzy flightless birds that made their Animal Planet viewing so satisfying. “Global Warming exists” argues one particular interview subject, the serious look on their face ready to circumvent any argument from Northern Hemisphere blowhards. As a document to a land pre-exploitation and the people vowing to preserve - or at the very least, understand it, this is yet another definitive documentary in Herzog’s infamously feathered cinematic cap. As with much of his work, he takes an unconventional approach to get the obvious last word on a subject. The marketing tagline suggests we “Go Somewhere Cool”. As long as we can go with Herzog, the latter part of that sentiment is a guarantee.