Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World
Directed by Werner Herzog
Encounters at the End of the World is the type of film that will garner two different types of viewer. The first might see the film as nothing more than yet another nature documentary set in the frigid Antarctica continent. The film provides these folks a fix of scientific explanations pertaining to ice samples and global warming, stunning shots of the continent’s vast emptiness and it a glimpse into the unknown below the ice. There are even a handful of penguin shots thrown in for the obligatory post March of the Penguins ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’
The more observant filmgoer will see Encounters for what it really is, a documentary not so much about Antarctica but one that questions why mankind yearns to explore this planet taking some literally to the end of the earth. Herzog is interested in learning more about what drives living souls to travel into the unknown.
For anyone familiar with the films of Werner Herzog, Encounters is any ways the film the auteur was destined to make. Herzog has always been fascinated by man’s perilous pursuit of enlightenment and as a filmmaker he has tested his own curiosities surrounding this world of ours. In Aguirre Wrath of God the protagonist (one of many daunting performances by Herzog muse Klaus Kinski) is on a suicide mission through the Amazonian jungles towards the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo documents the fictional account of a man’s dream of bringing the opera to the jungles of Peru and focuses on the mountain (literally pulling a riverboat up a steep hill) he climbs to bring his vision to life.
It is Herzog’s interest in mankind’s obsessive curiosity of the planet that draws him to Antarctica. In the introduction to Encounters Herzog narrates, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, are different.”
Encounters is about the people who live, visit and work in Antarctica. It is a common misconception that the only souls crazy enough to make the trek to the desolate continent are research scientists. What’s most striking about Encounters is that while many of the inhabitants of the few camps set up in Antarctica are there for the pursuit of scientific answers there are just as many average Joe’s simply there to catch a glimpse of the end of the earth.
Along the way Herzog encounters a linguist working in a greenhouse, working on the continent simply to get away from a world where every minute a spoken language becomes extinct. There’s the former banker and ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now drives a mammoth snow bus that would seem right at home in a Mad Max film. The eccentric world traveler who can tuck herself into a small carry-on suitcase seems to be at the camp merely to quench a never-ending thirst to explore every end of the globe. What’s striking about Encounters is that for every stunning underwater scene or shot of the picturesque Antarctic skyline there is an equally fascinating interview with the people who call this place home. The “full time travelers and part time workers” as one inhabitant describes his peers.
The trick of Encounters is that for the casual viewer the film is nothing more than a look at the natural wonders of Antarctica, with a timely message about global warming thrown in for political leverage. A closer look uncovers a film that is as much an ode to the world traveler as it is a nature documentary.
For many of the people Herzog encounters along the way Antarctica is the last stop on what might be a seemingly endless tour of the planet. A possibly mentally scarred Balkan mechanic has a packed backpack, inflatable raft, and tent ready if a desire to explore arises.
Then there’s the film’s one penguin scene in which Herzog ties man’s internal desire to explore with the natural world. Rather than focus his time on the masse march of the penguins Herzog’s camera lingers on a lone penguin headed towards the far off horizon, a path sure to end in death. Why does this penguin walk alone into the unknown? A scientist posits that the penguin might have a chemical imbalance and does not realize its actions. It’s clear that Herzog believes that the penguin’s motives are more complex and relatable.
Encounters at the End of the World is one of the most unexpected and dazzling documentaries to see this year. Herzog has long had a unique, often poetic way of looking at the world that, when fleshed on in film, is unforgettable. His views of the continent’s natural wonders–the mesmerizing underwater scenes, the unforgettable sunset shots–and his discovery of the arctic region’s scientific offerings–new marine species, patterns in ice melt and an intriguing active volcano–feed the traditional documentarian mindset. For some Encounters will be nothing more than another nature film in the wake of Planet Earth. And that’s okay. For others it will be the spiritual catalyst needed to awake the inner explorer in all of us.