Dir. Werner Herzog
(G) ★ ★ ★ ½
“I fell in love with the world,” says one of the subjects of director Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World. To Herzog this statement encapsulates the theme that has run through each of his films, and indeed there is a palpable sense of wonder for the world coursing through Encounters, in which the filmmaker visits Antarctica to discover its mysteries. But to call it a nature film would be a vulgarization to Herzog, who scoffs at the March of the Penguins model of documentary film. He is interested in an altogether different kind of nature — not biology and geography, but rather philosophy, sociology, and spirituality.
The first time I watched the film, it seemed to ramble. The second time — with the DVD audio commentary by Herzog, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, and producer Henry Kaiser — I was able to ramble along with it. This is not a narrative, or a biography, or an instructional film. Herzog does not mean to teach us. His film is about the experience of Antarctica, the unusual people he meets there, and what the place reveals about human nature. He is an explorer of the soul.
What I find the most striking about the film are the people in it. The South Pole is a land of hyphenates. The man who fell in love with the world is a philosopher-tractor driver. Travelers are computer experts. A Native American prince is a welder. The man washing your dishes may be a leading scientist. A menial laborer may be a poet. Kaiser, in addition to producing the film, is a diver and musician. There seems to be a man or woman for every corner of the globe, and several of them have seen every corner, and have arrived in this place, each for his own reasons. Herzog has selected his subjects for their diverse perspectives, but I think it mustn’t be hard to find such stories; to even venture to Antarctica requires a kind of imagination that puts you in special company upon landing there.
Herzog opens with a question. Running footage from The Lone Ranger, he wonders why mankind sets out to conquer, as it does when a man ties a saddle to a horse and rides. Monkeys are similar to us, and similarly capable of conquering other creatures. Why, then, do they not ride upon goats? There are no monkeys, horses, or goats in Antarctica. This is primarily a jumping off point from which to begin an investigation of man’s interaction with nature.
Isolation is a recurring theme. Untouched by man, Antarctica has been shaped over time into its mysterious beauty, and the lack of human intervention is what Herzog finds most stirring about its alien landscape. He dreads a time when explorers have run out of new places to explore and must resort to the kinds of inane personal quests that are fodder for the Guinness Book of Records, like another man he profiles, who hopes to hop on a pogo stick all over the world. I think he needn’t worry; scientists find three new species during a dive Herzog witnesses, and just looking into the vast blackness of the ocean under the ice I think is as close to forever as the human mind can ever conceive.
To describe more would merely summarize. Better to hear the hypnotic underwater seal calls and see the penguin wandering away from its colony for yourself. There are underwater sequences set to devotional music that achieve a dreamlike effect. A discussion about neutrinos that has metaphysical implications. A microscopic organism whose behavior makes a stronger case for intelligent design than Ben Stein’s entire feeble propaganda film Expelled. Encounters provides much food for thought. As for the monkeys, they still don’t ride goats, and maybe we should strive to conquer fewer horses.