From the opening scenes of “Encounters at the End of the World,” it is clear that Werner Herzog is taking us to a place that is nearly as lonely and strange as the Moon. That excitement builds upon landing and we are introduced to the ugly scattered town of McMurdo, the American Antarctic research station, and the continent’s largest community at just over a thousand or so transient residents.
The town is full of big yellow trucks and Quonset huts and the odd people who populate it, professional dreamers and those who have simply fallen off the edge of the map.
This is an unusual place where during the austral summer the sun never sets. It is a place of disorientation: of the imperceptible passing of time, of snow and ice into any horizon, and of an indefinable community of scientists and philosophers who to a large extent abandon their nationalities to become anonymous citizens of this frozen land. It is no wonder then, that it is a natural fit for Herzog who specializes in documenting the lives of unusual poets lived in off-the-beat places.
I saw the film twice, and on my second viewing, I looked forward to the sorts of mini-documentaries Herzog has cobbled together. Of all the films of his that I have seen, this one feels most journalistic in nature. Herzog is determined to capture the highlights of the current activity in the Antarctic, from the eerie electronic underwater sounds of seals brilliantly captured by his soundman, to the volcanologists perched at the edge of the constantly “bombing” volcano, Mount Erebus. And from Shackleton’s hut, its artifacts literally frozen in time, to an underwater cathedral with its frozen ceiling and jellyfish angels.
Werner Herzog always seeks enlightenment in any endeavour he embarks on and that is why I love watching his films. When scientists return from a dive and study their primordial soup under a microscope, they exclaim that three new species of unicellular creatures have been discovered. Herzog asks: “Is this a great moment?”
But his genius, what makes him such a loveable filmmaker, is his willingness to share the wisdom he has been offered with those he meets. When he talks to Libor Zicha, a man whose escape from behind the Iron Curtain is so fraught with nightmarish memories becomes choked up and is unable to speak, Herzog steps in and says “The best description of hunger I have ever heard is the description of bread.” Zicha manages a smile and a nod and the conversation ensues in a new direction.
This is a gorgeous film, full of strange images, sounds and people. My suggestion would be to rent the DVD version of the film that comes with the extras. If you are a Herzog fan you will find rewarding and enlightening the interview with Jonathan Demme.