The most noble pursuits, Encounters at the End of the World suggests, are reverent communions and painstaking observations of wild life.
I think it's always the mothers that hand it on to their boys, the sense of humor. Each mother is different; they are always unique. It's very hard to analyze it. I don't want to look at myself too hard, but I have a suspicion that it's handed down from mothers to sons.
"Is there such thing as insanity in penguins?" In Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog makes his way to Antarctica, where he meets with marine biologist David Ainley. Intent on engaging the notoriously taciturn penguin expert in conversation, Herzog decides to ask some provocative questions. He wonders about sexual orientation ("I read somewhere that there are gay penguins: what are your observations?") and insanity. "I don't mean a penguin might believe he or she is Lenin or Napoleon Bonaparte," the filmmaker explains, "but could they just go crazy because they've had enough of their colony?"
While the question might be unusual in the domain of penguin expert interviews, it's hardly strange within the world of Werner Herzog. An inveterate adventurer and self-described believer in "high duty," Herzog keeps mostly out of sight in his latest documentary, but his prompts and questions, and especially his ruminations on what's unfolding on screen, shape Encounters into an experience unlike any other. It is certainly, as he promises at film's start, not "another film about penguins."
Instead, it is a movie about people -- explorers and eccentrics, rebels and artists, individuals whose ideas and ambitions have been shaped by unlikely experiences. They are, in their weird and excellent ways, unique but also reflections of their resolutely passionate chronicler. "Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica, at the end of the world?" he asks as he rides a gigantic plane full of researchers and equipment. "What were their dreams?"
Encounters provides a number of answers, none definitive, all improbably enchanting. Arriving at McMurdo Station, Herzog begins interviewing -- not just the scientists who devote long years to the study of glaciers or seals, but also "fulltime travelers and part-time workers," like Stefan Pashov, identified here as "Philosopher, Forklift Driver," and Ryan A. Evans, "Filmmaker, Cook." Pashov suggests his route to the South Pole began with his grandmother, who used to read to him from The Iliad: "I fell in love with the world," he smiles, and so he's landed, for now, after decades exploring "many different lands of the mind and many different worlds of ideas," at its southern-most tip.
Framed by an endless white landscape, Pashov represents a generation of explorers whose efforts are only possible because of those who have come before Noting the technological advances that have allowed small communities to study the edges of the world, the film offers bits of black-and-white footage, Shackleton's weathered face, his dogs and his men making their way across frozen expanses. Glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal describes a dream he has, of the ice speaking to him, "sound coming up through the bottom of my feet." He explains the change in perspective since Scott and Shackleton, "who viewed the ice as this kind of static monster that had to be crossed to get to the South Pole." Now, he says, we "are able to see the ice as a dynamic living entity that is producing change."
It's exactly the place Herzog needs to be, documenting extreme possibilities of life and thought. As soon as he gets to McMurdo, he asserts, he wants to get out of the "climate controlled housing facilities," with radio station and bowling alley, and, he notes, "abominations such as an aerobics studio and yoga classes." Before he can get out into the field, he and his crew must undergo survival training, a seeming serious business that turns antic and odd here, an assortment of newbies with buckets on their heads (to simulate whiteout conditions), tied together and wandering off course, the faces painted on their buckets making them resemble bizarre clowns staggering across the tundra.
"I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and on my skin," Herzog says, by way of explaining his delight in the bad weather that keeps them inside just a little longer. At last they go forth, and the film begins cataloguing the various research projects at McMurdo and beyond: a nutritional ecologist's study of seal milk (so thick it's like paste, with not a smidge of lactose in it), a cell biologist's examination of what he calls "science fiction-type creatures" living underwater, under the South Pole. Sam Bowser's face lights up when he describes the microscopic monsters he's observed, whose tendrils and jaws look scary up close. "It really is a horribly violent world," he beams, "which is obscured to us because we're encased in neoprene and we're much larger than that world so it doesn’t really affect us." Off-screen, Herzog poses the evolutionary question: "Do you think that the human race and other mammals fled in panic from the oceans and crawled on solid land to get out of this?" Oh yes indeed, Bowser agrees, the earth seethed with miniaturized high drama thousands of years ago.
Still other stories emerge in unexpected places, as Encounters pushes on, with only a tinge of doom. Many researchers, notes Herzog, "express grave doubts about our long-ranging presence on this planet. Nature, they predict, will regulate us." Reminding us of our impermanence, the camera pans over a shrine to Shackleton, a collection of the canned goods he and his crew brought with them during their failed efforts to attain the South Pole: stewed kidneys, cod roes, Irish stew and Moir's Mutton Cutlets in Tomato Sauce. "It all looks now like an extinct supermarket," asserts Herzog.
But before they're gone, humans might strive to record, and feel awed by, the many dimensions of life they will never possess. Footage taken by divers beneath the ice reveals spectral, almost indescribably deep blue waters. Here "space and time acquire a strange new dimension," narrates Herzog. "Those few who have experienced the world under the frozen sky often speak of it as going down into the cathedral." And yet, for all this majesty, Encounters insists also on the human intrusions and natural absurdities that shape and reshape the world. The filmmaker laments, "It may be a futile wish to keep a few white spots on our maps, but human adventure in the original sense lost its meaning ,became an issue for the Guiness Book of World Records (to illustrate, Encounters grants a couple of minutes to Ashrita Furman, Multiple World Record Holder, to describe his next ambition, to pogo-stick his way into Antarctica).
The most noble pursuits, the film suggests, are reverent communions and painstaking observations, as in the case of Dr. Ainley. Living among the penguins at Cape Royds, he's long since lost his own interest in trivial discussions with uninformed people. He does point out, in response to Herzog's question, that penguins can become "disoriented" and lose their sense of the collective, the sense that allows them to survive their extreme environment. "One of them caught our eye," notes Herzog, as the frame shows a lone penguin, heading off away from the group, headed toward the interior of the vast continent, with 5,000 kilometers ahead of him." Watching him waddle, so tiny against the horizon, Herzog adds, "He's heading toward certain death." Though you feel sure he can't know this, it's hard not to feel sad seeing him go -- at once dauntless, disquieting, and beautiful.