A scene from “Encounters at the End of the World.” Diving beneath the Antarctic ice, a scientist-diver searches for new species of microbes. (Credit: Werner Herzog)
— by Nuño Dominguez
Places with extraordinary climates attract people with extraordinary lives. Such is the case of the scientist who claims she traveled from London to Africa in a garbage truck. She is just one of the improbable characters in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary film, “Encounters at the End of the World,” an unconventional and truth-seeking exploration of Antarctica.
Herzog, 66, is a veteran German filmmaker with a passion for unique and extreme people. He finds inspiration in men who choose to endure nature, like the visionary tycoon who tried to build an opera house in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, (“Fitzcarraldo“), or the environmental activist who lived among wild animals in Alaska until he was killed by a grizzly bear, (“Grizzly Man“). This time, the National Science Foundation invited Herzog to write and direct a factual film at McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. The goal was not to produce another movie about penguins, making “Encounters…” not your average wildlife movie.
Nevertheless, the film is like many others in that it gets a great part of its magic through cute nature shots. Beautifully crafted images and a solemn but sometimes annoying choral music brings the viewer under the crust of frozen seas, to the top of an active volcano and into ice tunnels that lead to the boiling center of the Earth. However, this journey is just the prologue to Herzog’s real interests: The vulcanologist and the welder, the biologist and the truck driver who live in Antarctica throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Herzog makes the point that no matter how excessive his characters are and no matter what remote land they live in, we all are a little bit like them. It is a difficult point to make and the director knows our first reaction is denial. His only chance to succeed is to let us think his characters are just a bunch of weirdos. He even supports our skepticism and mockery as we follow him on his exploration of the Antarctic base and its surroundings. We meet a scientist-performer who fits herself into a sports bag and crawls across the stage at one of McMurdo’s bars, and a Bulgarian philosopher who works as a bulldozer operator and says he is in love with the world. We also meet a bus driver who was once the prisoner of a dangerous tribe in South America and a glaciologist who dreams he travels north on one of the icebergs he studies.
Soon enough, the Antarctic safari moves to deeper grounds as Herzog captures the outsiders’ essences. His mastery as an interviewer helps viewers go through the exterior eccentricity of the subjects to reach an inner realm of personal stories full of wanderlust and curiosity for life. An intelligent use of the barren landscape of the base, the silent depths of the sea and the immense loneliness of Antarctica emphasize the universal resonance of those testimonies. Suddenly, we share the passion of the scientist who searches for the elusive neutrino particle or the sadness of the marine biologist about to take his final dip into the Antarctic waters. Only then, Herzog is able to make his recurrent point that the dreams of outsiders are no different from our own.