Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World movie poster


In 2007, the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion invit­ed leg­endary film­mak­er and doc­u­men­tar­i­an Wern­er Her­zog to make a film about Antarc­ti­ca. With only sev­en weeks to plan and shoot, and with an aus­tere crew of exact­ly two (Her­zog him­self and cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Peter Zeitlinger), he pro­duced the stun­ning­ly beau­ti­ful film Encoun­ters at the End of the World.

Right away, Her­zog declares he is not a “tree-hug­ger” or “whale-hug­ger.” Instead, he won­ders why civ­i­liza­tion is more con­cerned about endan­gered species than it is about its own dis­ap­pear­ing lan­guages and cul­tures. He made it clear to his spon­sors that he had no inter­est in mak­ing “anoth­er pen­guin movie,” of course a back­hand­ed ref­er­ence to the smash hit doc­u­men­tary March of the Pen­guins. For a brief peri­od around 2005, it seemed every­one was obsessed with the pecu­liar life­cy­cle of pen­guins, find­ing in them metaphors for every­thing from the sanc­ti­ty of mar­riage to evi­dence of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty in nature. But it turns out even Her­zog couldn’t resist the pathos inher­ent in the pen­guin lifestyle. He became fas­ci­nat­ed by the reg­u­lar occur­rence of indi­vid­ual pen­guins becom­ing dis­ori­ent­ed, and deter­mined­ly march­ing off alone to cer­tain star­va­tion and death. His cam­era catch­es one hap­pi­ly scoot­ing off towards the moun­tains, away from the rel­a­tive safe­ty of the ocean and his com­rades.

Encounters at the End of the World Henry KaiserSome of the oth­er­world­ly under­wa­ter footage by Hen­ry Kaiser the inspired Her­zog to inves­ti­gate Antarc­ti­ca

But Her­zog is most­ly inter­est­ed more in the humans that migrate to Anar­c­ti­ca. As is his cus­tom, he nar­rates the film him­self and open­ly won­ders whom he will find there. Some of the unusu­al char­ac­ters he encoun­ters are a philoso­pher oper­at­ing a fork­lift, a human­i­tar­i­an dri­ving a bus (the continent’s sin­gle largest vehi­cle), a lin­guist tend­ing plants on a con­ti­nent with no lan­guages, and a jour­ney­man plumber descend­ed from Aztec roy­al­ty. Most Her­zog-ian of all is an East­ern Euro­pean man unable to speak of his trau­mat­ic escape from “behind the iron cur­tain.” He keeps a large back­pack full of sur­vival gear, every­thing he would need should he have to leave at any moment. He puts it as being “in search of adven­ture,” but it seems he has left many places before he came to this one, so he is most like­ly doing more escap­ing than adven­tur­ing. He is not unlike Dieter Den­gler, the sub­ject of Herzog’s Lit­tle Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), who keeps a cache of food­stuffs in his home long after escap­ing a Laot­ian prison camp in 1966.

Werner Herzog & Peter Zeitlinger in Encounters at the End of the WorldWern­er Her­zog & Peter Zeitlinger

Antarc­ti­ca rep­re­sents “the end of adven­ture.” There are no more “white spaces on the map.” But most of the peo­ple Her­zog finds there are sci­en­tists, mak­ing it clear that there are many dis­cov­er­ies left to be made. Of inter­est to Her­zog is not only the research itself, but why it is being con­duct­ed in one of the most inhos­pitable places on earth. Zool­o­gists study nat­u­ral­ly tame seals, espe­cial­ly enjoy­ing their tru­ly bizarre under­wa­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion that one likens to Pink Floyd. Geol­o­gists flock to Mount Ere­bus, one of the the earth’s only three sta­ble open vol­canos, whose “lava lake” is essen­tial­ly the Earth’s exposed man­tle. The world’s only two oth­er open vol­ca­noes are both locat­ed in polit­i­cal­ly unsta­ble coun­tries, it being prefer­able for sci­en­tists to risk being pelt­ed by explod­ing bombs of molten rock in sub­ze­ro tem­per­a­tures than to be shot by bul­lets in hot­ter climes. In a sep­a­rate exper­i­ment, The Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaii is attempt­ing to detect neu­tri­nos. These sub­atom­ic par­ti­cles are omnipresent in abun­dance, but are almost impos­si­ble to observe direct­ly. The rea­son to come to Antarc­ti­ca is to escape the dis­tort­ing back­ground radi­a­tion of civ­i­liza­tion, a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one.

Her­zog ded­i­cat­ed Encoun­ters at the End of the World to crit­ic and long­time advo­cate Roger Ebert. It was nom­i­nat­ed for an Acad­e­my Award for Best Doc­u­men­tary, his only nom­i­na­tion to date. How the Acad­e­my could over­look the sub­lime and haunt­ing Griz­zly Man (2005) is beyond belief.

Offi­cial movie site: encountersfilm.com

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