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.
© Shaun Anderson 2010