Vivid 'Encounters' at Earth's (and Life's) Extremes

A diver hovers near an undersea ice sculpture. i

Close Encounters: A diver hovers near an undersea ice "sculpture" in Werner Herzog's documentary. THINKFilm hide caption

itoggle caption THINKFilm
A diver hovers near an undersea ice sculpture.

Close Encounters: A diver hovers near an undersea ice "sculpture" in Werner Herzog's documentary.

THINKFilm

Encounters at the
End of the World

  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 99 minutes

Rated G

Herzog and a colleague observe a vast ice plain. i

Filmmaking on the edge: Werner Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger at Cape Royds, on the westernmost edge of Ross Island. THINKFilm hide caption

itoggle caption THINKFilm
Herzog and a colleague observe a vast ice plain.

Filmmaking on the edge: Werner Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger at Cape Royds, on the westernmost edge of Ross Island.

THINKFilm

"We flew into the unknown, a seemingly endless void," says director Werner Herzog at the start of his latest wonderful and peculiar documentary.

He's headed to Antarctica — to the McMurdo research station, to be precise — and he's looking for answers. Sort of. Being Werner Herzog, he's posing questions that resist actual resolutions.

Those questions, the filmmaker explains, have to do with fears and desires, the sorts of dreams that people might pursue at the end of the world. "I would not," he promises, "come up with another film about penguins."

That's not to say Encounters at the End of the World is not pretty, poetic, occasionally even breathtaking. But its take on "nature" is less appreciative than it is provocative, even perverse. Though Herzog is not arguing with his subjects here, as in Grizzly Man, he remains determined to parse the world, to see how it produces humans and vice versa.

From Stefan Pashov, philosopher and forklift driver, to Karen Joyce, traveler and computer expert, the interviewees all tell remarkable stories. Where cell biologist Sam Bower is visibly thrilled as he describes the one-celled monsters he has found underwater ("slime-type blobs" and worms "with horrible mandibles"), the mechanic Libor Zicha, who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and keeps his rucksack packed so he can move on at a moment's notice, cannot even voice his feelings.

Herzog fills in, from off camera: "You do not have to talk. ... For me, the best description of freedom is what you have in front of you: You are traveling a lot."

Between conversations, you see life at the South Pole, images that careen from antic — a survival-camp lesson where students literally don buckets on their heads to simulate "a whiteout condition," then wander off together, directionless, mere feet from where they want to be — to tragic, as when Herzog does set forth in search of penguins after all, and finds himself trying, not so successfully, to conjure conversation with a taciturn researcher.

When the camera picks up a disoriented penguin, abandoning the colony and "heading straight for the mountains 70 kilometers away" — and so to certain death — the shot, huge landscape looming before the unstoppable trundler, is at once spectacular and strange. And perfectly Herzogian.

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