Encounters at the End of the World
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In the most hostile, barren, alien environment on the planet - you meet the most interesting people. Welcome to Antarctica - like you've never experienced it. You've seen the extraordinary marine life, the retreating glaciers and, of course, the penguins, but leave it to award-winning, iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn) to be the first to explore the South Pole's most fascinating inhabitants...humans. In this one-of-kind documentary, Herzog turns his camera on a group of remarkable individuals, "professional dreamers" who work, play and struggle to survive in a harsh landscape of mesmerizing, otherworldly beauty - perhaps the last frontier on earth.
Just about anywhere Werner Herzog goes becomes an interesting place, in part because the director shapes it with his distinctively sardonic eye. In Encounters at the End of the World, the 'Zog heads off to Antarctica, finding there a population of unusual people, hallucinatory underwater life, and penguins. He doesn't appear on camera, but the unmistakably Teutonic Herzog voice is very much with us all the time, a baleful tour guide for this blank destination. In the human outposts of Antarctica, Herzog finds the kind of people you might expect would gravitate to the edge of existence--the curious, the oddball, the wanderers who've run out of other places to explore. He finds some deadpan hilarity, especially in filming a communication drill involving people practicing blizzard conditions (they wear buckets over their heads while roped together). The underwater photography (a realm previously explored in Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder) is by Henry Kaiser, and it meshes perfectly with the director's interest in alien eye-scapes. And when Herzog finally does find penguins, his imagination goes to the idea that some penguins go insane, scurrying off into their own suicidal directions. This isn't as arresting a film as Grizzly Man, but it is an entertaining travelogue spiked with quirky observations. --Robert Horton
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The film is (surprisingly for me) produced by Henry Kaiser, and the highlight is some of his underwater photography.
My only complaint is that the soundtrack isn't separately available...
Herzog narrates his own films, with a wonderful mellifluous timbre to his voice. He is both wry and incisive in his observations, for example: “McMurdo is run in the spirit of a correctional facility, but the people are actually decent.” McMurdo is a grim looking place, due to the lack of vegetation – as are other near polar towns. Herzog says that it contains such “abominations” as a yoga studio, bowling alleys and ATM machines.
Some 30-40% of the movie are people that he interviews, “professional dreamers” as he calls them. Jan Pawlowski sequences DNA, and based such on the “takings” from one dive, identifies three new species – a cause for celebration. Sam Bowser is a diver, with a grizzly beard, doing his last dive, ready to pass the baton to the younger generation. He is a sci-fi buff, and makes frequent apocalyptical remarks. Dr. Gorham waxes enthusiastically about neutrinos and how they truly do represent a different dimension, and how Antarctica is one of the best places to attempt to identify these elusive sub-particles. Due to political instability in the Congo and Ethiopia, the only other two places that have volcanos that go directly into the earth’s magna, the safest place to observe this activity is in Antarctica. True to Herzog’s range of interests, he does not just interview “the experts” with “Dr.” in front of their names. He does lengthy interviews of the bus driver as well as a machinist whose finger lengths are very unusual because he is of Royal Aztec blood.
The cinematography is brilliant. It is such a pleasure to view the landscapes; the underwater cinematography is exceptional, setting this movie apart from others on the land really down under. Most is filmed in the blue natural light under the ice, and who would have thought that jellyfish, that torment swimmers in the Mediterranean, would flourish (beautifully) under the ice! Herzog does not overlook the history, filming Shackleton’s original hut, still preserved, and splices in some historical footage of the early explorers.
I first became acquainted with Herzog’s work in the 1970’s. After a four decade hiatus, I recently become re-acquainted when I viewed his movie about another “end of the world” sort of place: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. With two 5-star movies back-to-back, I will be back for more of his work in the near future.