(No longer in theaters)
Jun 27, 2008
As a documentarian, Werner Herzog approaches alien landscapes with a mixture of breathlessness and wariness. He is a driven man—self-dramatizing, unafraid to pose metaphysical questions, unembarrassed (I surmise) at occasionally sounding like a crackpot. He empathizes with the explorer’s urge to measure oneself against nature, even to the point of leaping into the void; yet the stories to which he gravitates are of leapers who don’t respect the immensity of the natural world and are chewed and spat out by it.
At first, his newest film, Encounters at the End of the World, is unusually detached, rambling in its approach to the setting—Antarctica’s McMurdo Station—and the sundry eccentrics who reside there. Who are these people drawn to the edge of the planet, and what are their dreams? Here’s a man who was a banker and then joined the Peace Corps. Here’s a guy who majored in linguistics who has come to a place without people—and, hence, languages. Here’s a woman who can talk your head off about her death-defying treks from continent to continent. Here’s where the fabled explorer Shackleton lived. Let’s dive under the ice and see the bizarre spindly creatures.
But midway through, an eerier theme creeps in, all the more powerful for Herzog’s lack of insistence. By the “end of the world” he means the end of the world. The people he’s profiling aren’t the overweeners pitting themselves against nature. They’re the reporters, the realists, the ones who say the ground is not as solid as in our Shackleton-inspired imaginations. The ice is alive—breaking up, moving in ways we can hardly imagine. Human life on the planet is not assured. We are the overweeners.
Herzog was invited to Antarctica by the National Science Foundation, with the only stipulation that he not make another penguin movie. He can’t quite pull that off: The movie’s most haunting image is of a little penguin trudging by its lonesome in the exact opposite direction it should be heading—toward distant mountains and certain death. Why? Herzog respects the penguin’s mystery. A scientist says that up here you hear “the universe whispering to itself.” What is it saying? Herzog doesn’t speculate. He ends with underwater seal calls—high-pitched, inorganic-sounding, yet keening, like a message to extraterrestrials saying the end is near.