Sunday, April 11, 2010


Directed by Werner Herzog

Narrated by Werner Herzog, featuring David Ainley, Samuel Bowser, Regina Eisert

There's a reason Werner Herzog vs. Chuck Norris became a slightly hot trending topic on Twitter a few weeks ago. While the 68 year old German director might not be as physically imposing as the bearded Walker: Texas Ranger star, Herzog has certainly earned his reputation as one of the most (if not the most) fearless directors in cinema. He's jumped into a bed of cacti to repent an actor's on-set injuries, eaten his own shoe after losing a good-natured bet with a friend, threatened to shoot leading man Klaus Kinksi, and forced his crew to tow a 320-ton steamship through the jungle. The man is simply a force of cinematic nature, and his films reflect that.

Most of Herzog's films involve some element of Man confronting Earth's elements head on in one fashion or another. Aguirre: The Wrath of God tells the story of Spanish conquistadors searching for El Dorado and being slowly destroyed (mentally and physically) by the dense and vicious Amazonian rain forest. Grizzly Man (one of the best films of the last decade) features defender of the bears Timothy Treadwell spending months in the Alaskan wilderness protecting the animals he considers his friends and who, ironically, was killed by a bear. Herzog displays, in both his narrative and documentary features, respectful awe for the beauty and majesty of nature and its inhabitants, but also a cold detachment; he very much believes nature is uncaring and unsympathetic to man and is working to purge the human race from the planet. Perhaps none of his films brings his two views of nature together better than Encounters at the End of the World.

After being shown underwater film footage from Antarctica shot by his friend Henry Kaiser, Herzog decided he wanted to travel to the continent to make a documentary about it and its inhabitants. The crew consisted of Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Once there, the two men interviewed a variety of scientists, biologists, and divers, along the way capturing amazing footage of Antarctica's white, desolate landscapes. The film begins as Herzog and Zeitlinger arrive at McMurdo station, a mining/research town that is the hub of the Antarctic science community.

Herzog doesn't spend much time on the science aspect of what those in McMurdo and the surrounding area are doing. Instead he approaches the his interviews and continental travel from a philosophical point of view. Most of the men and women in and around McMurdo are well-traveled and crave adventure for one reason or another, and Herzog is interested in the way these individuals view themselves in relation to the large ice block they currently inhabit.

Encounters at the End of the World is relatively formless in its structure. Herzog and Zeitlinger bounce from place to place, returning to McMurdo every once in awhile, without knowing what they'll encounter. They document their survival training (all inhabitants of McMurdo must go through the training before leaving the base) and then let their intuitions take them wherever. They encounter a seal camp, where scientists bag the docile seals and milk them. They arrive at Henry Kaiser's diving camp and interview Kaiser and his associates, who are researching primordial, single-cell organisms that exhibit early signs of intelligence. Next, their adventure takes them to the original base-camp of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton, then to an interview with penguin biologist David Ainley, where they capture footage of a disoriented penguin, marching away from the group it is supposed to follow and into the barren ice-lands of the continent to certain death.

Again and again Herzog's narration fluxuates between inspired awe and fearful respect for the power of Antarctica's climate and non-human inhabitants. Towards the climax of the movie, Herzog laments his position that man and nature cannot, have not, and will not ever co-exists, and that, in the battle of man versus nature, nature will always triumph.

This isn't to say that Encounters at the End of the World is depressing or cold. In fact, it's a genuinely beautiful film with outstanding cinematography and sound design (the other-worldly sounds that the seals make (and that play over the end credits) are particularly striking). While Herzog's view of nature is particularly nihilistic it doesn't mean he glosses over the majesty that life on this planet presents to us. By approaching the material through a philosophical lens and letting the inhabitants of the world's most desolate place open up an existential can of worms, Herzog creates a film that transcends the typical nature documentary and ends up being an almost spiritual experience.


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