Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is one of my favorite film makers. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but when he makes a documentary, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. He just sort of starts talking about what he’s up to, and at first you smirk, but soon you’re tapping your foot and involved in it, and not surprised when it’s a theme song for a movie or an inauguration.
Encounters at the End of the World is like that. Herzog visits Antarctica, well, because he wants to. He is adamant that he won’t be making another movie about damn penguins, and he concentrates on what interests him. First it’s the dreamers, wanderers and adventurers who people MacMurdo Research Station. John Carpenter wasn’t that far off with the quirky characters in The Thing, mind you. There’s a strange, homey atmosphere in the lonely places of the world, and we meet a woman who’s been all over the world, in dangerous places, and here she entertains her comrades by contorting herself so she can be placed in a duffel bag. We meet those brave souls who’ll dive among leopard seals under ice sheets to film the gorgeous formations or collect microscopic organisms, and the scientists who catalog the new species, and seek the origins of life on Earth.
He comments on how banal exploration has become, and we briefly meet a man who holds Guinness World Records for traveling in somersaults, on pogo sticks, and so on. He’s going to Antarctica to skip across it, or something. The point is that we’ve not only mapped the world, but hacky-sacked across it. But at MacMurdo, the spirit of Shackleton is still alive, and you see respect and perhaps envy for men such as him, who braved a new world, in their lives.
But perhaps to Herzog’s chagrin, the most arresting image is in fact, of a penguin who may have read Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” As the little explore stares out over the ice, we know that his journey may only be caused by a fault in his little brain, but who’s to say our own desires to conquer the unknown are so different? The footage is beautiful, and Herzog has once again made a masterful documentary. Get it on Blu-Ray, the DVD is a bit soft.