Director: Werner Herzog,
Watched in: Theater,
Encounters at the End of the World is middle of the road Werner Herzog. It’s a for-hire job that allows him to rant about us lesser humans who don’t live in extreme temperatures and risk death every day, who have regular jobs, families, kids, mortgages, etc. That’s usually okay with me. I go to Herzog for his oblique portraits of absurd risk-takers, people who dwell in the last remaining hut on the nexus of civilization, obsession, and madness.
My problem with Encounters at the End of the World is that Herzog’s gaze settles too easily on the people that just happen to be living in Antartica when he visited, rather than people he discovered or searched for by pushing himself to extremes. The microcell biologists, the drivers and divers, the computer programmers, the mechanics—they are getting paid to live and work at the end of the world, and Herzog, who is on assignment for Discovery Channel Films, sometimes gives away to the pressure to please his employers.
There are few of the quirks I come to expect from Herzog’s vision. His narration, while retaining his special brand of dry, flat irony, offers only a tidbit or two of revelation. He dips in and out of stories, and makes an occasional observation that may not hold up under deeper scrutiny. For example, towards the end of the film he interviews a penguin expert about insanity among the birds, and then focuses on one of the penguins as it gets lost and walks off into the tundra to die. Is the penguin crazy or just disoriented? He also expresses mild disgust at some of the conveniences to be found at McMurdo Station, like a bowling alley and an ATM machine, since these generic conventions of civilization don’t fit into his vision of this being a final outpost at the end of the world.
He also reuses underwater footage seen a couple years ago in his sci-fi pseudo doc The Wild Blue Yonder, a film was truly minor Herzog, the work of a filmmaker playing around with found footage (haunting and gorgeous though it was). Encounters does a much better job of integrating that same bizarre sea life and those creeping white ice shelves into a tale that engages the eye and the mind. But there are no scenes or moments to match his Grizzly Man or The White Diamond or Little Deiter Needs to Fly. I sometimes fear Herzog’s recent success with docs is making him lazy, like he is with his fictional work. Rescue Dawn, his last feature, while reportedly a grueling shoot, was a pretty crummy action film, filled with stilted dialogue and awkward scenes of manly comraderie.
Herzog takes comfort in the company of the researchers and sometime dreamers he finds in Antarctica. He seems to like the fact that they are searching for answers to mysteries, but he hopes the answers will match a conclusion he has already reached: that humans are doomed, that the riddles of life among the animal world are only answered at the moment of their death, and that mother nature is a frightening bitch with a master plan that does not include the rest of us. I happen to agree with Herzog, and despite my nagging feelings that he was kind of slumming it with this movie, I cozied up to his Tuetonic nihilism, his inherent need to expose our ridiculous presence on this planet by finding people who engage with the absurdity of life rather than ignore it.