Werner Herzog is a very funny man. That sense of humor is on full display in Encounters at the End of the World, in which our fearless, Ecstatically Truthful inquisitor travels to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to meet the brave souls who have abandoned normal lives in order to live and work on a continent that feels as otherworldly as a lost planet in outer space. At the same time, Herzog remains dramatically devoted to nature in its many puzzling shapes, forms, and creations. The result is a film that succeeds on two levels: as a lighthearted, Cannery Row-esque record of the kooky individuals who inhabit this community, and as a thoughtful exploration of the inherent natural mysteries that fill such an extraordinarily unique landscape. One need not be a Herzog devotee to be swept away by his entertaining and enlightening journey to one of Earth’s most beguiling, mysterious places.
The National Science Foundation recruited Herzog to make a film about this sparsely populated land, and he proves to be up to the task. At first, he is more intrigued by the bizarre individuals who have chosen to settle here, but gradually his attention shifts to the fascinating non-human creatures that populate the area: the seals whose underwater calls sound like ambient electronic music; the fluorescent jellyfish who appear more animated than live-action; and the penguins whose patterns of behavior are endlessly intriguing. In a particularly memorable moment, humor and drama collide as a lone penguin breaks away from the pack and waddles towards a far-off mountain. At first, it’s hysterical to wonder what this silly penguin is up to, yet the longer the shot holds and the smaller the penguin becomes, a human sadness settles in. It is a futile act, perhaps, to reject one’s life in the hopes of finding something else, but it is an act that Herzog admires. He doesn’t fully know what this penguin is thinking—maybe the animal simply became deranged—but its suicidal mission supports Herzog’s lifelong belief that nature is inexplicably cruel and unforgiving.
As funny as many of the interviews are, Herzog’s film is most impressive for its beautiful imagery and the haunting sense of mystery that suffuses it. Aboveground, the bleak, frozen landscapes establish a palpable sense of isolation, yet underwater, things become incomprehensibly magical, not to mention subtly menacing. The textures and sounds aren’t threatening in an overt sense, but one cannot forget that this is a world that exists underwater, under a punishingly thick layer of ice. Whatever is able to thrive in such difficult conditions is not common, and with the help of Herzog’s diver/guitarist/videographer friend Henry Kaiser, we are able to see it with our own wide eyes.
Like a well-trained comedian, Herzog knows when to turn up the knobs and elicit appropriate laughter. With Encounters at the End of the World, it might feel like he’s beginning to push the boundaries of self-parody, but all one needs to do is revisit any number of his films throughout his career and the truth becomes clear: he’s always been this way. Whether he’s working in the fiction or non-fiction realms, or, more accurately, in that vague space in between, Werner Herzog is as captivating a presence as the fascinating individuals and creatures that he probes with relentless curiosity.
— Michael Tully
(Encounters at the End of the World is now available on DVD through Image Entertainment. Visit the film’s official website for details, or click here to watch a high resolution version of the trailer. Buy it at Amazon.)