Exploring Antarctica with the director of Grizzly Man
by Jason Blair
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD: Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Cinematography, Peter Zeitlinger. Music, Henry Kaiser and David Lindley. THINKFilm, 2008. G. 99 minutes.
Somewhere off the shore of Antarctica is B15, an iceberg so immense that, were it to melt, it could run the river Jordan for 1,000 years. The iceberg is monitored from McMurdo Station, a research center for the National Science Foundation that, to the delight of director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo), is a collection point for the kind of half-mad visionaries that Herzog has been chronicling for 45 years.
Produced in association with the Discovery Channel, Encounters at the End of the World includes moments of sublime natural beauty. But Herzog isn’t capable of making a film like March of the Penguins. He’s interested in nature as the backdrop for human obsession, as a place where artists and dreamers seek extraordinary and transformative experiences, only to find — think of Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell — an indifferent and even hostile natural world. Encounters is a gentler exploration of this impulse to escape society, primarily because McMurdo is a relatively stable organism, but also because Herzog, who insists on inserting himself into his films, clearly appreciates the abounding beauty of the South Pole.
In fact, tracking Herzog’s zig-zagging curiosity is part of the pleasure of Encounters. He abhors the creature comforts of McMurdo, which include a bowling alley and yoga facility, as these represent small triumphs, however temporary, of human enterprise over a hostile environment. But the moment someone stumbles, the voyeur artiste is there. There’s an eagerness to the scenes at the active edge of a volcano — when no one is injured, Herzog inserts old footage of a near-death experience — just as there’s clearly heightened interest by Herzog and his cinematographer when a “buckethead” training, which simulates blindness in a snowstorm, goes hopelessly off course. And wouldn’t you know, Herzog gets his penguin moment after all: After interrogating a taciturn penguin expert about penguin homosexuality and madness — the director, I should mention, is an eloquent, inquisitive man — a penguin suddenly breaks from the pack and heads for the interior, to his certain death.
As usual, Herzog can be his own undoing. Just when Encounters coalesces into something wonderful, a work of unusual power — I’m referring to his interview with Libor, the broken-hearted utility mechanic — Herzog transitions into a long-winded indictment of the human urge to set world records. It’s damning commentary that plugs up the film just as Herzog has us on the verge of tears; for a veteran like Herzog, it’s an inexplicable mistake. Fortunately, Herzog recovers by pivoting back to McMurdo’s contradictions: the quiet so deep it wakes people up, or the seal music that’s likened to Pink Floyd by a physiologist. Odd, playful, sweet and innocent, as well as open-ended, loose and sometimes abstruse, Encounters is an artful documentary that finds beauty in bleakness, below and above the ice. The under-ice footage, set to basso profundo choral music, is breathtaking, and in general the music of Encounters is alternately uplifting and serene.
Very little of Encounters is devoted to climate change, a reprieve for which I was immensely grateful. Given Herzog’s inability to constrain himself, Encounters could easily have turned into a classroom lecture. Still, in a world of melting ice, the subject must be confronted. About climate change, and the fate of human society, Herzog is deeply fatalistic. This is where the other, darker meaning of the title emerges. Encounters is not a hopeful film, but neither is it without appreciation for the splendors, often hidden in plain sight, of the changing world we live in.
Encounters at the End of the World opens Friday, Sept. 12, at the Bijou.