By Michael Calleri
Buffalo Alternative Press Movie Editor
There’s a clue to his point-of-view in the title of Werner Herzog’s beautiful new documentary Encounters At The End Of The World. The title not only refers to Antarctica (the fabled South Pole), but it’s also a hint at Herzog’s idea that humankind is rushing headlong into oblivion. The end of the world, indeed.
I guess it was just a matter of time before eccentric filmmaker Herzog arrived in Antarctica. He is now the only director in motion picture history to make a feature-length movie on all seven continents. Encounters At The End Of The World is a superb example of the director’s unique documentary work. It is thoroughly accessible, fully entertaining, and not a little bit alarming. The photography is wondrous, especially during the diving sequences. In fact, there is so much underwater footage in the film that at times you forget you’re in the never-ending grip of a frozen wasteland.
Fans of Herzog’s work know that the director’s unusual personality and outlook are part of the joy of watching his movies. He doesn‘t disappoint here. Not only is Herzog at the top of his game, but the real-life “characters” in this documentary are a cornucopia of eccentricity. At the heart of the picture are the men and women who work at the McMurdo Research Station. There are some quite odd people living in extreme settings, and of course, that’s exactly how Herzog likes it. You wonder if these types of people naturally gravitate to him or if he gravitates to them. Whatever the answer, it’s a marriage made in Herzog heaven. There are nearly 1,100 summer residents at McMurdo, and the director manages to discover the truly unique among them. He calls these folks “professional dreamers.” You marvel at their delight in being weird. There’s the plumber who thinks he’s descended from Aztec royalty, the biologist who wants his co-workers to watch the 1950s-era science-fiction classic “Them,” and the computer technician who is, to be precise, a contortionist who enjoys folding herself into a suitcase. In all, Herzog conducts interviews with 16 residents of the South Pole, from a forklift driver who‘s also a philosopher, to a survival school instructor, to a volcanologist, a nutritional ecologist, and geochronologist. They are an always engrossing, occasionally zany compendium of “ology.“
And through it all we have Herzog himself, a bit daffy, a bit overwhelmed, a bit worried. You love it when he asks an expert: “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” And you also love it when he slams touchy-feely movies about cute animals and the tourists who love them, especially the parade of “eco-tourists” who he treats with disdain.
Lest you think Encounters At The End Of The World is a snappy travelogue with quirky guests along for the ride, think again. We get a real sense of the dangers of Antarctica. The scenes involving the exploration of volcanoes is, thanks to Herzog’s concerns, a bit scary. We also discover that he’s not a fan of some of McMurdo’s modern touches. His wry commentary on ATMs, which are at the South Pole, is delicious.
Herzog has a realistic view of nature. Strong-willed as always, he doesn’t brook differences of opinion. He knows what he believes and you might as well agree with him. His movie captures the breathtaking Antarctic scenery, but he’s also got something else on his mind. Herzog is convinced that humans are in a race that they are losing. In his world, nature will win. It always does. He doesn’t accept the notion that human survivability on Earth is a given. His narration is both witty and cautionary.
From the gorgeous underwater sequences to the director’s fascination with doom, “Encounters At The End Of The World” is practically a compendium of Herzog’s cinematic talents. Add his personal interpretation of the reasons for, and perils of, our existence, and you have quintessential Herzog. It’d be a great starter film, an introduction to Werner’s World. But the fact that this man is beginning his fifth decade making movies means he’s bringing his entire history to this work. His life, his films, and his viewpoints. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be cherished, and the movie is one of the best of the year.
If you would like to email Michael Calleri, you may do so at MichaelCalleriMoviesBAP (at) Yahoo.com.
“Encounters At The End Of The World” is currently on screen in metro Buffalo at the Amherst Theater. Call the theater for show times or to ask how long it will play at the Amherst. Dipsons Theaters does move around its films to other area cinemas in the chain, so be sure to ask about future play dates.