DVD Review of Encounters At The End Of The World

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/19/10


  Werner Herzog’s career, the last couple of decades, has been far more focused on documentaries than on fiction films. His classic fiction films are almost all from the mid-1980s or earlier, whereas his notable documentaries are almost all since that era. Encounters At The End Of The World, a 100 minute long film, released in 2007, is among the very best of that later output. It follows the 2006-2007 austral summer journey of Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger to Antarctica.

  The film is, by Herzog’s own account, not going to be like a National Geographic documentary, not like March Of The Penguins, a film that he despises. Many of the underwater shots had previously been used in Herzog’s earlier film, The Wild Blue Yonder, a puzzling pseudo-science fiction mishmash. The scenes of light pervading under the ice is very reminiscent of the claims of Near Death Experiencers. Make no mistake, though, about this film- it is no mishmash- it cuts directly to the heart of Herzog’s ideas of the cosmos: that it is indifferent, if not cruel, and that it often likes to torture the living. And, while the film shows these tendencies in nature, to a degree, it most definitely shows this in the inhabitants of Antarctica- the people of the largest American station on the continent, at McMurdo Station, in the Ross Sea. The station looks like something out of an 1890s Yukon Gold Rush mining town.

  Herzog seems to find most of them fascinating, but, if they are, it’s in the hours of footage that Herzog likely spent interviewing many of the thousand or so summer inhabitants, because what is left on the screen is fascinating, only in the bizarre manner that one might have described Timothy Treadwell, the lunatic death wish idiot from Herzog’s Grizzly Man as fascinating. Most of them come off as hermitic losers and loners, each with often bizarre traits that Herzog nearly fetishizes; and I do not declare it so negatively. This is an important documentary that details what exactly constitutes ‘extreme personalities.’ Often the claimed background tales the people tell are more interesting than the people themselves. There are the requisite scientists, all of whom speak with passion and zeal of how their work is important to the world, but Herzog relishes the oddballs- a kid who runs the station’s Frosty Boy pseudo-ice cream maker, and seems to derive an almost sexual pleasure from dipping his fingers into the mixture, as if a cool female pudenda. Then there is the American Indian plumber, with oddly shaped fingers, who claims descent from Incan royalty. In the DVD commentary, we find out from Herzog that he was electrocuted shortly after Herzog left the continent, and may not have survived. There is a woman who has had assorted adventures avoiding death on several continents, whose main pleasure in life seems to be the open mic night at one of the station’s bars, where she crawls inside a carryon case and sticks her arms through holes she has cut out. She seems to be the station’s resident comedienne. The station’s bus driver also regales the viewer with tales of surviving a machete attack in the Yucatan. There are also odd moments with a would be philosopher and a linguist-cum-horticulturalist, but these encounters all seem to highlight the film’s lone failing: Herzog seems to feel these people are far more interesting that they reveal themselves to be. Better editing of scenes to show this, or losing half the human ‘cast’ would have made the film far more interesting, although it’s plenty engaging as it is. There is a good deal of unwitting self-parody present, and whether this is immanent in the people, or part of Herzog’s cruel streak (you have to love when he labels aerobics and yoga as New Age ‘abomonations’, is beside the point. The film is better for the parody and cruelty because who else would care of these losers without Herzog’s lens upon them- especially the nut who wants to go to Antarctica and set some bizarre sort of World Record in tumbling, or balancing a bottle on his head?

  We then see the discovery of new species, a scientist obsessed with 1950s Doomsday films like Them!, the preserved final hut of Antarctic pioneer Ernest Shackleton, which has become a de facto museum, and a trip into dug out ice mines under the geographic South Pole, wherein oddities are preserved: Russian caviar, popcorn garland about a shelf of flowers cut out from magazines, and a whole frozen sturgeon. Herzog muses on what alien explorers might find, thousands of years from now, after the human race has perished (an idea he seems to feel is inevitable).

  There is an odd excursion with a solemn penguin expert, named David Ainley. For several minutes, Herzog tries to prompt the scientist into loquacity by asking increasingly bizarre questions about penguins being afflicted with homosexuality, prostitution, and schizophrenia. Herzog seems to revel in the idea of penguin insanity, to the point where he follows one oddball penguin, who instead of heading toward the sea or the nesting grounds, seems determined to waddle to its doom, headed toward the Antarctic mountains seventy miles into the distance. He claims that nothing any human being could do to help the bird would stop it. Then he wonders why this is, when the answer- because- is plain. It’s a great example of not only Herzog’s obsessions, but his taking a rather mundane example of it and carving drama out of it. This is what a great artist does, and Herzog is amongst the very best to ever wield a motion picture camera.

  Next there is a trip to Mount Erebus, where Herzog interviews vulcanologists. We learn of the mountain’s history, and then follow Herzog and Zeitlinger as they journey into a fumarole, on the slopes of the volcano. The shots are eerily reminiscent of those taken underwater, in the Ross Sea. Then there is a sequence on the filling of a helium balloon, which will study neutrinos, and rise miles into the sky. The film ends with more interviews of the denizens of the south, and a dedication to film critic Roger Ebert.

  Herzog informs the viewer, early on, that the film was made with a Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant from the National Science Foundation, and was not to be your typical nature documentary. He delivers in spades. He first was piqued with Antarctica when he saw footage by underwater diver Henry Kaiser, while editing Grizzly Man. Because he got an NSF grant, Herzog had more freedom in shooting and editing than he would have had if he had gotten a media access grant.

  The DVD, by Image Entertainment, is a two disk set. Disk one has the film, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and includes two featurettes, Under The Ice and Over The Ice, which features information about the Antarctic seas and land. It also has an audio commentary by Herzog, Zeitlinger, and Kaiser. It is a good one, but not a great one, as in many other Herzog films. The reason is that Herzog does not speak nearly as much as he should. Zeitlinger chimes in here and there, but the conversation is controlled by Kaiser, who often interjects corrections to Herzog claims (such as in the film where he claims Antarctica is as large as continental North America), but then wanders off on topics that would be better served by Herzog’s great raconteuring, such as when he admits to staging a scene wherein scientists place their ears on the ground to listen to seal calls that bellow up from below. Disk two has the rest of the features. These include rather dry interviews with the divers, and two minor featurettes: Seals & Men and South Pole Exorcism, whose topics are revealed by their titles. There is also a terrific interview of Herzog by filmmaker Jonathan Demme, and one gets the sense that Herzog has real contempt for Demme, as he puts on the other filmmaker by claiming that the cartoonish Hannibal Lecter, of Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs, somehow frightened him. This seems so implausible, that one can only confirm Herzog’s put-ons of Demme by listening to the rest of the feature, wherein Herzog seems to clearly be speaking of things Demme is clueless of, and when Herzog answers Demme’s rather obvious questions in simple ways, because the queries simply are not as deep as the prosaic Demme seems to think they are. Finally there is the theatrical trailer for the film.

  Encounters At The End Of The World never reaches the documentary heights of My Best Fiend nor Little Dieter Needs To Fly, but it is well above most documentaries given theatrical release. There simply is an essence in Herzog’s films that few other films can touch, and this film proves that like few others, since Antarctic documentaries have been around for decades. Watch this and see the White Continent anew.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]


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