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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'Encounters at the End of the World'

"Encounters at the End of the World."
Discovery Films
"Encounters at the End of the World."

New documentary by Werner Herzog

German filmmaker Werner Herzog is becoming known for more than just his art house films. The man who directed such stellar works as Aguirre, Wrath of God and the recent Rescue Dawn is also starting to get recognized for his appearances in documentaries about him. Burden of Dreams chronicled his obsession to make Fitzcarraldo in the jungle, and in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe the director makes good on a bet and does precisely what the title says. In those documentaries, Herzog displays a dour, anal-retentive, and thoroughly obsessive persona that would be mocked in the faux documentaries Incident at Loch Ness and The Grand . What makes Herzog so entertaining is that he's so serious and he seems completely unaware of how funny that is. In both Loch Ness and The Grand , he acts as if he doesn't realize it's all a joke. In his documentaries, Herzog becomes as much of a character as the people he films. Although he doesn't generally appear on camera in his documentaries, he contributes voiceover narration and asks questions off screen as he pursues people who are as obsessive as he is. Little Dieter Needs to Fly gave us a man obsessed with becoming a pilot and Grizzly Man focused on a man whose passion for bears eventually led to his death. Now Herzog heads down to the South Pole for Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the odd collection of folks at the bottom of the world.

Herzog has always moved between fiction and non-fiction work but his subjects and themes are often the same -- he likes to focus on obsessed individuals, dreamers and new frontiers. Herzog begins by explaining to us that he was invited by The National Science Foundation to come to Antarctica even though he told them in no uncertain terms that he would not be making another film about penguins. He had other questions on his mind about nature and man. As he flies in to McMurdo Station, he wonder who he will meet and what would be the dreams of these people.

What he quickly concludes is that as "banal as McMurdo is" it boasts a diverse mix of "professional dreamers." One of the first people he meets is the driver of "Ivan the Terra Bus" driver. He has an impressive back story beginning as a baker then moving on to the Peace Corps and getting captured by teenage guerillas in Guatemala and then befriending them. There are also people like Stephan Pashov, identified as a "philosopher and forklift driver." Pashov speaks poetically about traveling his whole life with Odysseus. There's also William Jirsa, a linguist who says that if you took everyone who's not tied down they would fall to the bottom of the earth. Jirsa explains that he had been pursuing a PhD but found that no one really cared that we were losing languages at a rate that was as devastating to cultures as the extinction of animals was to nature. Herzog notes that in the time he spent with Jirsa, "we lost three or four languages."

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Then there are the scientists he finds working on a variety of projects. While Jirsa mourns the loss of languages, cell biologist Samuel Bowser celebrates the discovery of three new species of miniature life forms. He also enjoys showing sci-fi films about the end of the world and he describes the microscopic world he studies in terms befitting the monsters of an old sci-fi flick. We also find physicist Peter Gorham who speaks passionately about the unseen neutrinos he's studying: "As a physicist even though I understand it mathematically and I understand it intellectually it still hits me in the gut that there is something here surrounding me almost like some kind of spirit or god that I can't touch but I can measure it." Gotham. Like the other scientists Herzog interviews talks in almost poetic terms about his work and reveals a passion that's almost palpable.

As Herzog narrates his film he becomes as vivid a character as the people he films, and that's part of what makes the film so entertaining. Herzog is so dour and serious. He complains that McMurdo is like a "dirty mining town" and has such "abominations" as aerobics classes and ATMs. At one point his cameraman is showing us a beautiful sunny day and Herzog complains that he "loathes" the sun both on his celluloid and his skin. And although he promised not to make a film about penguins, he does find a penguin researcher. But he asks a question that only Herzog could have asked with a straight face: "Is there such thing as insanity among penguins... I don't mean a penguin could believe he or she is Lenin or Napoleon Bonaparte but could one just go crazy because it's had enough of it's colony?" You could debate whether or not Herzog finds an insane penguin but he does find a "disoriented or deranged" one that flees the colony and heads off to what Herzog describes as certain death.

The film also mourns what Herzog calls the end of human adventure. Once the South Pole was explored there were no more blank spots left on the map. Now human adventure has been perverted into Guinness Book of World Record stunts like pogo sticking across the desert. But ultimately Herzog's film captures the beauty of the undersea world at the pole and the quixotic dreams of these people who have come to the bottom of the planet in search of something not quite tangible.

"Encounters at the End of the World" (rated G for all audiences) proves an oddly poetic film and in some ways one of Herzog's sweetest. The conundrum he poses is that despite his irritated and disgruntled demeanor, Herzog is often in genuine awe of what he finds both in nature and in the people of Antarctica. So the earnest seriousness that can make Herzog almost comical at times it is also the quality that allows him to paint a sincere portrait of these eccentric souls without a hint of mockery.

Companion viewing: "The Endurance," "March of the Penguins," "Them," "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe"