Only Werner Herzog could make Antarctica into a fascinating place I would like to visit, as he does in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.
Herzog’s 2007 documentary includes what you might expect of him: intellectual voiceover, intriguing stories, and immense landscapes all bundled with a sense of wonder infused with a dose of wry cynicism.
The landscapes and seascapes of Antarctica offer a mysterious beauty. If the scale seems small in the image, the voiceover provides the reality check. Fumaroles in the ice created by a volcano can reach two stories high. Underwater footage takes us under the ice into a whole new world bathed in an eerie glow from the sun filtering through.
McMurdo Station is a base, almost a city, on the continent. Here, Herzog finds person after person with a story to tell. One identifies strongly with his Aztec ancestry. Another is a linguist. Still another escaped imprisonment behind the Iron Curtain and remains prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, right down to the inflatable raft and paddle tucked in his bag. One woman starts to recount her precarious journey from Nairobi to London in a garbage truck, but since her story wanders, Herzog offers his own briefer comments instead.
Herzog’s voiceover is both personal and intellectual. The documentary has grant funding from the National Science Foundation, and he reminds the organization (and us) the he cannot do a film on penguins. That reminder does not stop him from asking a scientist about penguins going insane, however, as he shows a lone penguin marching away from food and the colony toward a certain death.
Other comments prove amusing. During the summer, the sun shines for 24 hours over a span of about five months. Herzog notes, “This was frustrating because I loathe the sun both on my celluloid and on my skin.”
Still other comments offer a grim view on intellectual enterprise and human civilization, such as the allowing of languages to die out and seeing the eventual demise of human beings.
Herzog also knows when to keep quiet. One sequence shows scientists drilling through the ice to make a small hole and then adding dynamite to make the hole slightly larger. He observes later how the scientists remain quiet during the process, which his silence own magnifies.
After seeing a few of Herzog’s works, such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Grizzly Man, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, I have come to appreciate his presence and style. I find myself gravitating to docs that have more “personality,” such as in their subjects, their presentations, or their makers. While not without their own problems, they do stand out in the sea of more anonymous documentaries out there.