In 2007, the National Science Foundation invited legendary filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog to make a film about Antarctica. With only seven weeks to plan and shoot, and with an austere crew of exactly two (Herzog himself and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger), he produced the stunningly beautiful film Encounters at the End of the World.
Right away, Herzog declares he is not a “tree-hugger” or “whale-hugger.” Instead, he wonders why civilization is more concerned about endangered species than it is about its own disappearing languages and cultures. He made it clear to his sponsors that he had no interest in making “another penguin movie,” of course a backhanded reference to the smash hit documentary March of the Penguins. For a brief period around 2005, it seemed everyone was obsessed with the peculiar lifecycle of penguins, finding in them metaphors for everything from the sanctity of marriage to evidence of homosexuality in nature. But it turns out even Herzog couldn’t resist the pathos inherent in the penguin lifestyle. He became fascinated by the regular occurrence of individual penguins becoming disoriented, and determinedly marching off alone to certain starvation and death. His camera catches one happily scooting off towards the mountains, away from the relative safety of the ocean and his comrades.
But Herzog is mostly interested more in the humans that migrate to Anarctica. As is his custom, he narrates the film himself and openly wonders whom he will find there. Some of the unusual characters he encounters are a philosopher operating a forklift, a humanitarian driving a bus (the continent’s single largest vehicle), a linguist tending plants on a continent with no languages, and a journeyman plumber descended from Aztec royalty. Most Herzog-ian of all is an Eastern European man unable to speak of his traumatic escape from “behind the iron curtain.” He keeps a large backpack full of survival gear, everything he would need should he have to leave at any moment. He puts it as being “in search of adventure,” but it seems he has left many places before he came to this one, so he is most likely doing more escaping than adventuring. He is not unlike Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), who keeps a cache of foodstuffs in his home long after escaping a Laotian prison camp in 1966.
Antarctica represents “the end of adventure.” There are no more “white spaces on the map.” But most of the people Herzog finds there are scientists, making it clear that there are many discoveries left to be made. Of interest to Herzog is not only the research itself, but why it is being conducted in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Zoologists study naturally tame seals, especially enjoying their truly bizarre underwater communication that one likens to Pink Floyd. Geologists flock to Mount Erebus, one of the the earth’s only three stable open volcanos, whose “lava lake” is essentially the Earth’s exposed mantle. The world’s only two other open volcanoes are both located in politically unstable countries, it being preferable for scientists to risk being pelted by exploding bombs of molten rock in subzero temperatures than to be shot by bullets in hotter climes. In a separate experiment, The University of Hawaii is attempting to detect neutrinos. These subatomic particles are omnipresent in abundance, but are almost impossible to observe directly. The reason to come to Antarctica is to escape the distorting background radiation of civilization, a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one.
Herzog dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to critic and longtime advocate Roger Ebert. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, his only nomination to date. How the Academy could overlook the sublime and haunting Grizzly Man (2005) is beyond belief.