FILM: Encounters at the End of the World
FILMMAKER: Werner Herzog
REVIEWER: Katy Jones
Werner Herzog “Encounters at the End of the World” is an…interesting movie. Imagine giving a quixotic filmmaker an amazing camera, sending him to Antarctica and letting him wander around aimlessly at whatever thought pops into his head. Viola! “Encounters at the End of the World.” Strangely the most obviously directed and aimless, beautiful and possibly useless documentary I’ve ever watched.
The story begins on the transport plane – wandering about with a fisheye lens. Herzog narrates – and promises that he will be making a different kind of Antarctica film. He’s curious about “deeper” questions – like why some ants milk other insects – what? No, I’m serious, that’s his deeper question.
After landing at McMurdo, the launch point for all Antarctic research, he wonders what sort of strange characters he will meet in Antarctica – who goes there and why? Ah, a plumber, a truck driver, an iceberg geologist! Shocking to find such people here. Only the iceberg researcher is actually allowed to speak during his interview. Herzog graciously summarizes the other interview subjects for us, in voiceover, while the subjects are still speaking on screen. It’s like saying (in heavily accented German) “Dis person talked TOO LONG.” Wasn’t that what editing was invented for? So you don’t have to narrate? Is this a comedic element? Because it’s weird and kind of rude.
So for seven weeks he wanders aimlessly about the South Pole from McMurdo to Mt. Erebus and cuts off at least 50% of the people he interviews. I have to give him credit for going up to a penguin researcher and asking (German accent), “Ar dere any gay penquins?” and “Ken PENquins go IN-SANE?” – questions which I have never seen asked of any other penguin researcher on film. It is most certainly not your “typical” film about Antarctica.
While I have some issues with the story, which was really more travelogue than documentary, there is no doubt that the footage is outstandingly beautiful. Even a sequence of events at a training camp in which the trainees were trained for “white out” conditions by wearing a bucket on their heads was fantastically well-shot and conceived. One of my favorite segments is a conversation with seal researchers who, after shoving a bag over a nursing mother seal’s head and forcibly extracting her milk so they can analyze it, go on to talk about the “Pink Floyd” quality to seal calls swimming in the ocean beneath the ice they stand on. The shots of these scientists putting ears to ice to listen to seal calls were obviously directed, and yet, strangely appealing.
The most outstanding, eerie, and breath-taking footage was definitely the underwater footage. Every time the ice covered underwater world was revealed to the camera I could feel my eyes grow large and the critic within me quiet down. There is nothing comparable to that world. And the scientists working in that world are astronauts as much as biologists. One scientist said it was a nasty, violent world, and supposes that this is why mammals evolved – to escape.
I couldn’t quite figure out whether this was a comedy or a documentary. The characters had kind of a weird mockumentary quality to them. Like he just picked the craziest people and moments to speak to. He included such awkward interviews, and then clearly didn’t even find them interesting enough to let the characters speak for themselves. The moments at the research station McMurdo are occasionally laugh out loud funny. And he is critical of the station for having luxuries like a yoga class so close to the end of the world. Um, please come to my small town and criticize us, Mr. Herzog, for trying to make our lives enjoyable.
This film was nominated for last year’s Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature.” The previously reviewed “Man on Wire” was the winner that year. I am glad, because I liked that movie better.
For me, Encounters at the End of the World just didn’t puzzle itself out into anything at all other than man wandering around with camera. Occasionally, there are great moments in the film. Occasionally, there are crappy moments in the film. It all seems so accidental it wasn’t that much fun to watch even for the good moments.
Two out of five cheers.