If you’ve watched any of Herzog’s previous documentaries, this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Herzog has no problem making himself and his perceptions an overt part of the non-fiction stories he chooses to tell; his brilliant 2005 documentary Grizzly Man frequently found Herzog alternately admiring his subject, self-styled Alaskan grizzly bear “protector” Timothy Treadwell, and wondering about Treadwell’s sanity. There may be a school of Frederick Wiseman-influenced documentary filmmaking that posits the director as a detached observer, but Herzog doesn’t belong to that school. He probably would have spent a lot of time in the principal’s office at that school.
Encounters at the End of the World finds Herzog squarely in his element: wondering about dreamers and about humanity cut loose from the comforts of civilization. He captures snapshot portraits of the individuals who, in the words of one forklift driver-cum-philosopher, “want to jump off the end of the world.” Many of them are scientists: physicist Peter Gorham, who can barely contain his fascination with figuring out the strange world of neutrinos; biologist Sam Bowser, who combines his enthusiasm for odd undersea critters with a love of 1950s science-fiction movies. Others are support personnel, including a plumber who proudly displays the unique finger length that marks him as a descendent of Mayan royalty and a former Colorado banker now driving a transport bus. They’re all misfits of one sort or another, and Herzog allows them to tell their stories with patience and nothing remotely resembling condescension.
He’s also a supremely gifted filmmaker, so it’s not surprising to discover that Encounters provides as many compelling images as intriguing characters. Undersea photographer Henry Kaiser explores the strange fauna beneath the Ross Sea ice, like skittering sea stars and pulsating jellies. We plunge into the catacombs of ice created by a venting volcano, the crystal blue walls dripping with frozen stalactites, and we observe a team of seal researchers lying prone on the frozen ocean, listening to the calls of the animals below. And in one of the most wonderfully absurd moments, Herzog observes a mandatory new-arrivals survival course, the participants roped together and wearing head-covering buckets—with faces added in cartoonish permanent marker—to simulate white-out weather conditions.
But as keen as Herzog’s eye is behind the camera, it is the presence of his editorial voice that really gives Encounters its pop. Upon his arrival at McMurdo Station, he describes its industrial bustle as resembling an “ugly mining town.” After listening to one-time linguist William Jirsa describe the events that drove him to work in McMurdo’s greenhouse, Herzog bemoans the “stupid trend of academia” that has made it somehow acceptable to watch a language disappear from the earth. He even muses apocalyptically about the likelihood of humanity itself becoming extinct, and what an alien archaeologist might find in the tunnels beneath the South Pole. The narration—delivered in Herzog’s chewy Teutonic accent—turns the filmmaker himself into the real central character in Encounters at the End of the World. Through his filtered perception, there’s nothing quite so grotesque as arriving in Antarctica and finding “abominations such as aerobics classes and a yoga studio.”
The impressive part is that no matter how much Herzog’s presence permeates the film, he doesn’t trample the fascinating parts of the world he’s visiting. He knows exactly when to shut up and let the images do the talking (though his one misstep may be over-using dramatic choral music to accompany some of those images). Like the best of tour guides, Herzog is there to give you a value-added service—not just the story, but a story behind the story. Maybe it wouldn’t be possible for him to make “another film about penguins,” but when he does visit with the waddling birds, you can be sure it’s to focus on the one disoriented loner who strays from the route to open water, and wanders inland “towards certain death.” That’s Werner’s world.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Documentary Directed by Werner Herzog