Most likely, no one reading this has visited Antarctica. It’s little wonder this is the case: in terms of attractive vacation spots, bleak, unrelenting snow drifts just don’t have the same allure as Bermuda’s pristine beaches or Italy’s panoply of history and food.
Thus, in lieu of an Expedia-booked trip to the bottom of the world, the best option left to those of us who still want to see the frozen seventh continent is probably documentary film. And in his new movie, Encounters at the End of the World, famed German director Werner Herzog has created a work that offers a breathtaking view of Antarctica. But Encounters is not just a collection of stunning vistas and close-ups of adorable, waddling penguins. What makes Encounters both a fascinating film and a profoundly moving one is Herzog’s focus on the introverted people who inhabit the world’s most austere landscape. These “dreamers,” as Herzog labels them, have fled civilization, and in some instances, all human relationships. Due to Herzog’s patient inquiries, the movie succeeds as both a portrait of place and an investigation into the psychology of its people.
Encounters is nothing like a National Geographic documentary. Rather, the film is Antarctica through Herzog’s eyes – incorporating his biases and interests and advancing his opinions. The film is essentially a chronicle of Herzog’s trip to the desolated region, and his husky German tenor provides narration throughout. Encounters begins with the filmmaker's arrival at McMurdo Station, the headquarters of the National Science Foundation, which houses 1100 people during the months of October to February, when the continent is immersed in sunlight 24 hours a day. McMurdo is situated on a small island off the coast of the mainland continent, and we share in Herzog’s surprise that the station looks like the drab, post-industrial streets of Pittsburgh or Cleveland – there are even a few bars in the settlement. But this is only one of many astonishments to come.
Despite the superficial similarities to non-arctic life, once Herzog begins to talk to the residents of McMurdo, we quickly realize the boxy buildings and idling bulldozers conceal existences unlike anything in the warmer climes. The people Herzog finds at the end of the world include a forklift driver-philosopher; a marine ecologist who has studied penguins in solitude for so long he can barely speak; a linguist turned gardener who runs the camp greenhouse; and a computer expert who traveled through Africa in a sewage pipe on the back of a truck. The stories of these travelers drive the film forward and are its most compelling component. In a particularly captivating scene, Libor Zicha, a utility mechanic at McMurdo, shows Herzog the backpack that he keeps fully packed at all times, in case he needs to escape quickly. Zicha fled the U.S.S.R. after suffering at the hands of the Communists, and since that time, he always wanted to be able to leave a place on a moment’s notice. That Herzog would concentrate on such individuals is no surprise to anyone familiar with his previous films. Throughout his career, in works such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Rescue Dawn, Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog has displayed a preoccupation with men surviving life’s most intense conditions. Herzog uses film to probe humankind’s limits. As a man saddled with obsessions, he wants to understand the obsessions of others, too. Although Encounters is ostensibly about nature, it is really about how nature changes man and man changes nature.
Encounters also contains some amazing shots of Antarctica. At one point, Herzog follows a scientist into the caverns of snow formed from gaseous eruptions along the sides of Antarctica’s active volcano. The scientist poetically refers to the icy blue hollows as “cathedrals.” Another researcher states that hearing the call of seals is like listening to Pink Floyd. Even without such vivid descriptions, Antarctica’s snow itself is mesmerizing. Through Herzog’s camera, we see Antarctica in all its violent beauty -- many of the underwater images of the teeming and exotic life-forms on the ocean floor verge on the indescribable.
For the majority of the film, Herzog lets these images speak for themselves. He is a generally quiet, unobtrusive guide. Despite the fact that we feel his presence in every shot, he also often allows Antarctica’s boundless stretches of snow and endless days to be the center of attention. It is only at the film’s conclusion, when Herzog puts forward his belief that global warming is mother nature’s correction of human behavior and that mankind is only a temporary phenomenon soon to be replaced, that his intrusion into the film becomes problematically heavy-handed. Fortunately, this section is extremely brief. Encounters is at its best during the moments when nature’s surreal elements are juxtaposed with humankind’s dreamers. By the film's closing frames, due to Herzog’s distinct fixation with humanity’s eccentrics, the viewer feels unsure whether the earth’s most alien climate can match the wild diversity of human personality. We may venture to Antarctica only to find that there is nothing more peculiar than ourselves.