Original release: June 11th, 2008
Running time: 99 minutes
Writer and director: Werner Herzog
Cast: David Ainley, Samuel S. Bowser, Regina Eisert
Having fallen in love with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man upon its release I made an attempt to look back through some of his catalogue and found a number of other compelling and original offerings. Although the documentary about Timothy Treadwell remains my favourite film from the Bavarian auteur I also have a great love of his other masterpiece, fiction film Fitzcarraldo (1982), and although he has some misses (Heart of Glass, 1976, Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979) he makes up for these with things like Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972).
With all this in mind, I came to Encounters At The End Of The World with high hopes – more La Soufriere (1977) than Fata Morgana (1971) please Mr Herzog. Whilst it does not hit the heights of Grizzly Man, it is another intriguing documentary. The premise is a simple one; having seen some underwater footage from beneath the ice shot by his friend, Henry Kaiser, Herzog gets permission to travel to Antarctica, to the southernmost encampment in the world to shoot a documentary. When he arrives at McMurdo Station he finds something reminiscent of a mining town filled with scientists and lost souls who have “fallen to the bottom of the planet” filled, complete with an ATM, a bowling alley and yoga classes.
Herzog not only interviews a variety of different and eccentric residents but travels to a number of smaller satellite camps to find out about the work being done by scientists who use McMurdo as their hub, including the station that got the underwater footage that drew him to the south pole in the first place. Herzog’s narration, which runs throughout – being as philosophical, esoteric and at times mad as ever, begins with an explanation that he was not going south to make another film about fluffy penguins. He made it quite clear that his trip was more interested in human nature than the lives of the natural inhabitants of the continent and it is certainly the people of McMurdo who give the films its colour.
From the first man he meets upon his arrival, an investment banker who quit his job to join the peace corps – subsequently having to learn to speak Mayan – he now drives the enormous ‘Ivan the Terra Bus’ in McMurdo. It is clear that the life on the station attracts a particular type of person. Others describe finding many kindred spirits when they first arrived at the station and we get to meet: a plumber who claims heritage from Aztec kings as proved by his middle two fingers being identical in length; a philosopher who is now a forklift truck driver; a cellular biologist who initiates his staff in the wonders of classic Science Fiction movies between diving expeditions; a group of scientists who lie, ear to the ice listening to the seal calls below it and members of an impromptu rock band who play outdoor concerts on top of their building.
The most interesting of these inhabitants is someone who we only meet very briefly; a Russian man who lived behind the Iron Curtain and finds it too painful to talk about how he made his way here. He lives his entire life with a rucksack ready packed so that he might leave wherever he is at a moment’s notice – when he empties the rucksack (which is never more than 20 kilos) we learn that included in the pack are a a rubber dinghy and an oar; y’know….just in case.
When out at the scientific camps we see experiments ranging from analysing the milk produced by mother seals for their young (which is 45% fat and 0% lactose), looking at the creatures on the under-ice seabed and how they protect themselves, the study of volcanic activity at close quarters, and a massive helium balloon designed to give insight into the elusive nature of the neutrino. Herzog also does manage to give us a penguin moment, however in total contrast to what the viewer may expect, we are treated to a truly bizarre interview with the penguin scientist and then a typically Herzogian capturing of the moment where a solitary penguin, lost, heads directly for the mountains and its certain death. There is some lovely footage, from both the underwater cameras and of the vast wilderness surrounding the camps – Herzog, as ever, excels in shooting the landscapes.
The problem with Encounters at the End of the World is mostly that it has no real unifying theme or goal. Where something like Grizzly Man has a strong theme and core, Encounters… feels more like a collection of interviews or of short pieces about the oddball inhabitants of McMurdo and as such is a lot less compelling than his previous film.
Also, whilst his joy in looking at the wacky side of the station and those who chose to live there in eternal daylight is amusing, you do long for something a little deeper. If I had to chose between the training exercise in which everyone wore buckets on their heads to simulate a white-out or a deeper insight into why people end up at McMurdo, I know which I choice I would make. Still, this is a very interesting film and a fine addition to the collection of documentaries that Herzog has built up over the years – long may they continue.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.