Encounters at the End of the World

Fancy meeting you here
Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog and others
The Setup: 
Werner Herzog goes to the Antarctic to see what kind of people are there.

This new documentary by Werner Herzog was at the art movie cinema, got fairly good reviews, and promised to have beautiful arctic imagery, so off me and my friends went.

Herzog, who narrates the film in his intense German-accented voice, which can seem hilarious to us, says that Discovery Channel invited him to go down there are just record his impressions. Apparently they don’t exactly have commercial flights to Antarctica, so you all find space in the hold of a cargo plane. Herzog pans around the group of people, and says “Who are these people? What are their dreams?” This is your first clue that the movie is less about the Antarctic itself as the kind of people who would choose to go there.

Among the first people he covers is Stefan, credited as a “Philosopher / Forklift Driver,” who says that a special breed of people come down to Antarctica, “people ready to jump off the edge of the world.” People who don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else and to whom the idea of being away from almost everything mainstream and all large cultures seems like a great idea. By the way, the place they’re all living is a nasty collection of shacks and corrugated metal warehouse-looking places and the snow there is dirty and the earth ripped up, making the entire place look like a big nasty construction site.

Then a glaciologist comes on and talks about the ever-changing nature of he Antarctic, saying that when Shackleton was there they thought it was a static place—which is blatantly untrue. The entire reason Shackleton’s ship was crushed was because of the ever-changing ice, and, you know, I think he noticed. In fact, they discuss it in their journals, Mr. Know-Nothing glaciologist. By now one might observe to oneself that all the people in the Antarctic are a trifle on the too poetic side, or they’re just playing to the camera. Herzog shoots an exercise all newcomers must go through which is to try to find a lost crew member with a bucket on their head, in order to simulate blizzard conditions. They all get hopelessly lost, making a bad decision and compounding it with worse decisions. During this time the ALLEGORICAL SIGNIFICANCE light at the bottom of the screen is flashing red and yellow.

Then there are some sublime moments like the noise sea lions make while underwater, which sounds like a 70s Moog synthesizer—if you heard it separately there is NO WAY you would think it was not electronic. There is some beautiful footage of diving beneath the ice, showing the bizarre creatures that live there, and upon return they find that they have discovered three new species. “Is this a great moment?” Herzog asks in his unctuous voice.

We meet a guy who was a linguist and was working on a significant advance in linguistics [sorry, don’t remember exactly what it was], but his review board began to feel that this somehow began to extend into the realm of black magic [!], and thus his research was stymied. He seems still incredulous, broken down by the world, and ended up down there in Antarctica. There are also talent shows that the residents down there to amuse each other, including one in which a woman packs herself into a piece of hand luggage.

The ALLEGORICAL SIGNIFICANCE indicator is also flashing as we visit a guy who studies penguins, and see a lone penguin going off toward the mountains, when he should be going toward the sea, and will almost certainly die. We also find out about penguin prostitution, in which a female penguin goes with a male simply in order to steal one of his rocks. Penguin harlot!

It was good and quite engrossing, but you know what? Unless you have nothing better to do, don’t get cable, or seek air-conditioning, you can wait to watch this on Discovery Channel. The title turns out to be quite accurate, as the film is about the Antarctic second and about the people Herzog meets there first. He seems to be fascinated with finding out who these people are who want to get away from any mainstream culture and away from most people. And they’re interesting. Just not so interesting you need to shell out $12 and go all the way to a theater for.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, though I would wait for the DVD or when it comes on TV—if you need to see it at all, which you don’t really need to do.