Despite the multiple cinematic explorations of his rocky relationship with Mother Nature, it’s difficult to get a handle on just what mad German director Werner Herzog thinks about the less urban areas of our globe. Films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Where the Green Ants Dream, Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn have pitted Herzog’s iconoclastic, single-minded heroes (real or imagined) against the pitiless mercies of nature. It’s a battle that mankind rarely wins—at least in the lens of Herzog’s camera. So what is Herzog’s obsession with greenery? Does he have a love/hate relationship with Gaia? A fear/fascination with the Forest Primeval? Has he read Moby-Dick one too many times? Whatever the answer, Herzog’s works are nearly always fascinating to behold.
Herzog’s latest film, another documentary fueled by his fascination with high-definition video, is a rumination on the world’s harshest embodiment of Mother Nature: the Antarctic. And this time, it’s personal. With his HD camera and a minimal crew in tow, Herzog sets out for the McMurdo research station in Antarctica, an isolated cluster of Quonset huts that swells to a community of some 1,000 scientific researchers in summertime. Hoping to find a world of stark beauty and bold characters, the director discovers instead “an ugly mining town.” Worse yet, it’s sunny. “I loathe sunlight, both on my celluloid and on my skin,” complains Herzog in his lyrically grumpy narration.
Our tour guide is obsessed by the alien landscapes hidden under the Arctic ice—twisted sculptures he tried to exploit in his last, misguided sci-fi film The Wild Blue Yonder. He displays a grisly fascination with the elements, which can kill a man in mere seconds. He’s intrigued by the animals who live here—particularly the seals who carry on an underwater conversation that sounds “like Pink Floyd” (which it does). Along the way, Herzog does lob a few pointed insults at documentaries about “fuzzy penguins”--though he’s quick to change his tune when he locates a couple examples of penguins who seem to have gone insane, wandering disoriented into the deep tundra. Those fuzzy penguins, he likes.
As he rambles his way across the continent, pointing his camera at whatever happens to catch his eye, Herzog starts to assemble a somewhat focussed portrait of the sort of human beings who are attracted to this unforgiving environment. A Spartan parade of socially off-kilter scientists and assorted drifters wanders past Herzog’s lens. Glaciologists, vulcanologists, seal researchers, deep-sea divers and the odd bus driver spin their assorted travelers’ tales, all of which converge here on the furthest fringes of civilization. Though Herzog’s film sheds no light on what exactly caused them all to shake down to “the place where all the lines converge,” it does give the impression these men and women are of a certain collective archetype.
Of course, any talk among scientists these days is bound to lead, in a roundabout way, to the subject of the environment. Most of the research being conducted in Antarctica ties in to climate change, and few seem to have a particularly rosy picture of it. (One group, in a fit of black humor, even spends its nights watching monster-filled ’50s doomsday movies.) The occasional discussion of earthly extinction gives Herzog’s title a tidy double meaning.
Gorgeous, inscrutable and distracted by seemingly insignificant details, Encounters at the End of the World is a work of mad genius. It’s like a picture-perfect postcard sent by a schizophrenic vacationer. We get indelibly beautiful images (lingering shots of that half-liquid landscape hidden under 6 feet of ice), oddball juxtapositions (a frozen sturgeon, permanently preserved as a memento under the magnetic South Pole), impatient observations (“Her story is too long,” grouses Herzog of one interviewee) and curious character sketches (like the plumber who offers up genetic evidence he’s descended from Aztec kings). Somehow though—combined with Herzog’s luminous camerawork and surrounded by a truly hypnotic score—these elements harden in the frigid Arctic air into a singular experience. Over the course of 99 minutes, that schizophrenic postcard becomes a dreamy ode to the odd, the admirably eccentric and the suicidal, teetering on a collapsing ice shelf somewhere at the end of the world.
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