The View From Here

First Look -- Werner Herzog's Encounters At The End Of The World

Michael Bonner

You might assume that Encounters At The End Of The World could be an agreeably apposite subtitle for many of Werner Herzog’s best known films. You could think, for instance, of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald taking Verdi’s music to the Peruvian jungles in Fitzcarraldo; the Conquistadors lost in the Andes in Aguirre: The Wrath Of God; Grizzly Man’s activist Timothy Treadwell and his bears in the wilds of Alaska.

With this in mind, it seems perfectly natural for the 67 year-old Herzog to pitch up at the McMurdo Research Center in Antarctica. Here, summer is accompanied by five months of uninterrupted sunlight; where “you wake up in the night it’s so quiet” and the chatter of seals underwater “sound like Pink Floyd.” It’s a place of such incomporable isolation that even penguins can go mad, let alone the 1,000 strong community of scientists and researchers who come here to study the ice and the ocean beneath it.

There's always something anthropological about how Herzog is drawn to document people in extraordinary circumstance. And, arguably, you can’t get much more extraordinary than living at the South Pole. Typically, Herzog finds McMurdo to be a repository for strangeness, drawing to the bottom of the world a community of travelers, scientists, weirdoes and drop-outs. Herzog finds a journeyman plumber who claims to be descended from an Aztec royal family; a biologist who’s been living in isolation among the penguins for so long he can barely hold a conversation; a cell biologist with a taste for science fiction who describes the ocean’s microscopic life forms as if they were monsters in a Cronenberg movie and who regularly shows his interns doomsday B-movies from the 1950s. As one character they meet, in the small hours of the morning in McMurdo’s hydroponic green house explains, “this place is full of PHDs washing dishes, linguists on a continent without languages.” But crucially, Herzog never mocks, and the film is more than just a study of these benign eccentrics.

In Grizzly Man, Herzog famously claimed: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” It’s perhaps strange, then, that Herzog finds beauty in the Oscar-nominated Encounters…, particularly the breathtaking underwater film shot by musician-cum-diver Henry Kaiser. All manner of eldritch sea creatures move gracefully below the frozen surface that itself resembles an alien landscape, the footage soundtracked by mournful chamber music. Above ground, the lingering shots of the frozen Antarctic wastes are imbued with a glacial elegance; elsewhere, footage of the Polar volcanoes echo some Blakean idea of the terrible beauty of nature. There is an ongoing theme here, too, of mankind’s own destruction. Herzog uses Frank Hurley’s footage of Shackleton’s 1914 Trans-Antarctic expedition, and particularly the sequence of the ship, Endurance, trapped in an ice floe, finally crushed by the pressure of the ice. With a kind of Teutonic pragmatism, Herzog predicts that nature will one day reclaim the planet.

And then there’s the penguins. Herzog, who claims from the outset he doesn’t want to make a film about “fluffy penguins” eventually finds himself in the company of a colony of them, where he meets scientist David Ainley. Herzog endeavours to engage in conversation Ainley, who’s been out there with the fluffy little chaps for so long his grasp of language is beginning to falter. There is what initially appears to be amusing talk about whether penguins can turn gay, before Herzog asks: “Is there such a thing as… insanity among penguins?” You might think this borders on self-parody – until you see footage of one bird suddenly peeling off from its fellows and waddling off towards the mountains, a suicidal journey that will bring about certain death. Are we, too, Herzog implies, on a suicidal journey of our own..?

The film ends with Herzog entering a manmade subterranean chamber. His voiceover wonders what, in the future when humans are extinct, alien scientists might make of the place. I’m briefly reminded of the end of Spielberg’s AI, where extraterrestrials find the android child David frozen below what was once Manhattan in the far future. In Herzog’s Polar tomb, there’s pictures of flowers surrounded by wreathes of popcorn and, curiously, a frozen sturgeon. That these strange, surreal souvenirs might outlive humanity provides a sombre comment on the frailty of all of us.

Encounters At The End Of The World opens in the UK on April 24. You can watch the trailer here


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