Movies We Like
Encounters at the End of the World
It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.
Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.
Basing themselves at the homely McMurdo Station, Herzog and Zeitlinger venture out to meet zoologists studying Weddell seals for clues to human weight loss and geologists studying melted icebergs heading towards the civilized north with unknown consequences. But that’s not why we watch Herzog movies. We watch them for his deadpan hyperbolic narration, the seal calls that sound like Kraftwerk, and the images that constitute his sensibility of pathetic black humor: survival experts training a hopeless group wearing buckets painted with cartoon faces to simulate a no-visibility scenario, and the disoriented penguin compelled to run to the barren interior and certain starvation, his knees locked, his arms flung out in desperation. Although Encounters isn’t a groundbreaking documentary, nor is it Herzog’s best film, to watch a movie about ice and seals and know that it could only have been made by one man, makes it wholly worth watching.
Encounters at the End of the World was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.