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Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World (2007; Directed by Werner Herzog)

As it is in his habit to do as a filmmaker, Werner Herzog prefaces his Discovery Films-backed documentary about Antarctica by outlining his peculiar perspective on scientific questions. Encounters at the End of the World will not be another film about “fluffy penguins”, Herzog narrates in his fantastic, inimitable Bavarian tones, although it does feature penguins (albeit mysteriously disoriented ones waddling away from their colony to certain death). Indeed, as he tells us, among his favourite scientific conundrums is why intelligent animals such as chimpanzees don’t enslave inferior creatures such as goats and “ride them into the sunset”.

No, this is not your usual Antarctic documentary film. All of the conventional elements are there: the endless snow-covered expanses, the hardy, well-adapted native species, the echoes of the exploratory golden age of Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen, the elegant sculptural formations of undersea ice. Herzog, employing a soundtrack of monastic-style chants and reverberating folk-guitar picking, emphasizes the strangeness of this frozen continent, its unsettling permanence and eternal alterity from human civilization. But he also demonstrates a keener interest in the scientists, labourers, and seekers that populate this forbidding landscape than previous documenters of the Antarctic region have, which should not be surprising considering Herzog’s well-established artistic obsession with man’s existential place in the face of an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile natural world.

As a thoughtful Slavic gent introduced as “Philosopher, Forklift Driver” expounds upon for Herzog’s camera, Antarctica’s McMurdo Station settlement seems to attract a certain breed of traveler/dreamer who look to leap beyond the margins of the map. Herzog does show an interest in the activities of these non-permanent residents, but shows an even greater interest in the residents themselves. Barely off the plane from New Zealand, he meets a former banker from Colorado who once escaped machete-wielding mob justice and now drives “Ivan the Terra Bus”, the largest vehicle on the continent. A journeyman plumber shows off his abnormally-shaped hands, which are evidence of his descent from the Aztec royal family. A cell biologist dives beneath the ice to study (and discover henceforth unknown) micro-organisms, watching 1950s sci-fi movies about giant ants and jamming on electric guitar in his free moments. Another scientist speaks volubly about tracking icebergs the size of Britain, another relates her many perilous experiences in the African interior. A linguistics PhD tends a greenhouse in McMurdo, and his rambling digression on dying languages earns the open scorn of the narrator Herzog.

Herzog gets opinionated about Antarctica in odd spots fairly often, in fact. He bemoans the depressing, muddy industrial settlement at McMurdo while also deprecating its modern comforts like a bowling alley and a yoga studio. He quite nearly welcomes a classic Antarctic wind-and-snow squall, complaining that he detests the sun’s rays “on my celluloid and on my skin”. As a filmmaker who has now produced cinematic work on every continent and in often highly difficult conditions, you’d think Werner Herzog would be beyond allowing environmentally-related irritations from showing in his work.

But as it was for Shackleton (whose preserved hut Herzog visits and compared to an abandoned supermarket, with its century-old canned food), Antarctica can still be a confounding and frustrating place. Much of the affect of Encounters at the End of the World is derived from Herzog’s exhibition of the elements that make the bottom of the earth so frightfully inhospitable for humans, and how humans stubbornly attempt to overcomes those elements. Another team of scientists study seals, fat, beatific beasts that lollygag on ice floes while the humans monitoring them struggle to breathe through frostbitten lips and press their ears to the ice to listen to the animals’ alien sonic emissions. Some beings are better adapted to the harsh climes, at least.

Herzog films a survival school that he has to attend before venturing forth from McMurdo, focusing particularly on a zero visibility exercise in which the participants wear buckets over their heads (with silly faces drawn on the buckets in Sharpie) and follow a lead line to locate the instructor standing by a nearby outhouse. They become hopelessly lost, the line tangled, the team turned in circles, the instructor never found. It’s a sequence full of metaphorical absurdism, redolent of not only man’s hubristic efforts to tame the hostile Antarctic immensity but also of man’s efforts to find existential meaning in a harsh world, instead becoming disoriented and waylaid until it’s too late, like the demented penguin.

Late in this remarkable film, Herzog and his camera visit a team of physicists who launch enormous scientific balloons into the atmosphere to measure the movement of neutrinos. These basic subatomic particles underlie all matter in existence and are constantly, invisibly active all around us, but, the physicist tells Herzog, don’t really seem to do anything. This model of frantic activity with basically no deeper reward echoes Herzog’s evident view of human endeavor as one of lively, magnificent futility. This is an existential construction that is only magnified in the vast void of Antarctica, this gaping Herzogian abyss at the end of the world.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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