Dir. Werner Herzog, US, 2007, 99 mins
Encounters at the End of the World documents Werner Herzog’s journey to Antarctica, where he observes the animal life native to the bottom of the world - above and below the thick ice that’s now thinning - and examines the similarly bizarre human life that gravitates there. Like so many of Herzog’s films, it reaches a familiar perspective, a place where he can view the quirks of nature and meditate on the prospect that much of what he sees could vanish relatively soon.
Made for Discovery television, Herzog’s documentary has a stunning palette. The dazzling images speak eloquently for themselves, even without the director’s witty deadpan voice-over. The film’s constant humour should also bring a boost and differentiate Encounters from the flood of nature movies out there. The success of Herzog’s Grizzly Man has also brought the director a new audience.
True to form, Herzog’s travelogue of the beautiful continent that he reaches in late 2006 opens with scenes of ugliness: a visit to the research station of McMurdo on the Texas-sized Ross Sea revealsa cluster of grey shacks and trailers with buses, a bowling alley, and, as Herzog says contemptuously, ‘even an ATM’. It’s a place for travellers at the end of the line (‘PhD’s washing dishes’ and ‘linguists on a continent with no language’) who ramble on dreamily about their research and the paths that brought them there, often echoing the scientific ruminations in Herzog’s friend Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.
Herzog is bemused by the continent’s beauty and daunting scale. He visits an immense volcano where scientists take gas samples and dodge explosions (with mixed results).
Researchers ponder the persistence and fragility of life against all odds. Getting lost in the white expanse is a constant risk and a running joke, as trainees walk around with white buckets on their heads to simulate the effects of blizzard blindness. A cell biologist regularly dives below the ice to study micro-organisms, and often struggles to find the small hole that leads back to the surface. He and colleagues unwind from hours of projecting human extinction by watching 1960’s doomsday movies on their computers.
Creatures below range from a five-tentacled ‘octopus’ to tiny organisms that disguise themselves as little trees. Herzog and DP Paul Zeitlinger set their elegantly balletic movements to sacred choruses and David Lindley’s slide guitar.
Yet the real musical discoveries in Encounters are the ‘un-natural’ squeaks and moans that lumbering Waddell seals make under the ice, which could be the soundtrack for a sci-fi video game. Scientists try in vain to reproduce those sounds on electric guitars.
Whether he’s probing a penguin’s death-wish or discussing terminal human wanderlust, Herzog makes every encounter a story. The hallucinations that come through the camera make his documentary a unique piece of cinema.
Discovery Films (US)
Discovery Channel (US)
Discovery Films (US)