Monday, 18 January 2010

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Country: USA

Eccentric Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog continues to defy categorisation - which is some achievement after forty seven years of making films. His movies are never less than inscrutable, perplexing and enigmatic. Even when Herzog deals in more straightforward subject matter he brings to it an otherworldly sensibility. Encounters at the End of the World is a mystifying and unfathomable experience in large part due to an episodic structure that mirrors the itinerant souls that find themselves encamped at the end of the world. Herzog was inspired to shoot a documentary film in Antarctica by the unearthly underwater footage shot by diver and musician Henry Kaiser. A good deal of this found footage appears in Herzog’s bizarre science-fiction parable The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) doubling as a strange and ethereal alien world. Herzog’s Antarctic adventure was approved by the National Science Foundation, and he was determined not to treat the landscape in the romanticised sentimental fashion displayed in March of the Penguins (2005). Instead he sets about asking the peculiar questions of nature and life that we have come to expect of him, and treats the landscape with a reverence bordering on the spiritual. 

Herzog’s base of operations was McMurdo Station in the South Pole. It is a grotesque eye sore which the director compares unfavourably to a mining community. There is something oddly blasphemous about the image of industrial vehicles churning up the ice with brutal efficiency. In one or two deft images and a few narrative comments Herzog captures the environmental price of scientific endeavour. McMurdo is home to a thriving community of scientists and skilled labourers. They are wanderers and drifters, many of whom rejected the conformity of academia for the blinding white expanse of the arctic tundra. They are forging new frontiers at the furthest points of the compass. Herzog unsurprisingly is not overly interested in the scientific motivations of these adventurers, he is interested in the dreams, visions and philosophical motivations. The stories they recount are both exciting and disturbing. While an ecstasy of freedom is celebrated, it only highlights with alarming accuracy, the strictures and pressures of the modern world. But within this icy idyll comes the realisation that these nomadic frontiersman can go no further. They have literally reached the end of the world, and Herzog’s camera unflinchingly alights on both happiness and sadness.

McMurdo increasingly becomes a microcosm of western society. Despite the need for escape, these people still cannot do without bowling alleys, bars, and ATM machines. Herzog’s impatience can be heard in his barely concealed contempt for this state of affairs and he itches to escape. The film finally comes alive when Herzog travels beyond the community into the glacial fringes of obscure scientific research. Unfortunately this is also the moment in which the peripatetic structure of the film becomes a hindrance. Herzog slowly drifts from one outpost to another, and the messages of the film become unclear and inconsistent. Of these encounters the most interesting are a lonely band of volcanologists studying Mount Erebus and the intrepid divers who descend beneath the crust of ice to film an alternative reality. The images captured here are fused eloquently and poetically with the soundtrack, an authorial stamp of Herzog’s which is unmistakeable. But this unfamiliar sphere of existence is also nightmarish. It is populated with grotesque and uncanny life forms that frighten and fascinate in equal measure. Danger is never far from the surface, an aspect that is captured perfectly by the amusing survival exercise at McMurdo which ends in failure.

Amid the breathtaking beauty and the poetic selections Herzog makes, and despite a steadfast sense of humour, the tone is solemn. This is exemplified by a touching and depressing sequence in which a solitary penguin marches into the inhospitable mountains to a certain death. Herzog constructs a bleak and pessimistic ecological and environmental message. But just when the tone slips close to outright doom and gloom Herzog is able to find something uplifting and optimistic. A good example is the unusual sounds emitted by Waddell Seals. A bizarre collage of music that reminds one more of the synthesised experimentations of Tangerine Dream, than anything found in nature. Despite a somewhat lazy and rambling structure Encounters at the End of the World is a remarkable cinematic achievement. With its population of eccentric glaciologists, volcanologists, ecologists, and physiologists Herzog has created a haunting and ethereal vision of life at the end of the world.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Sounds like a great documentary, Herzog has always loved filming his movies and documentaries in the most outlandish of places. I love it how these locations sometimes appear to come out of a big budget fantasy film, but nope, its all there, in the real world. For free. Herzog is just there to capture it. Great review! I really like this blog, very well written, already subscribed!

    We seem to have very similar tastes in film.

  2. Many thanks - yes our tastes clearly chime. Yes he has a knack of making the real seem unreal. It is just a shame that so many of his short films and documentaries are unavailable. I have always wanted to see "The Ballad of the Little Soldier", but my wait goes on. Herzog once claimed that "Fitzcarraldo" is his greatest documentary, which tells you something about the tension in his work between fiction and reality.

    Thanks for subscribing.


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