May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 14, 2007
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
Encounters at the End of the World has the merit of addressing two of my long held fascinations at the same time, Antarctica and Werner Herzog. The former has been a lifelong point of interest, having something to do with stark horizons, the personality of nature, and wayfaring to the edges of things – and exactly the same could be said for my interest in the latter. If there is any place fit for Herzog, it is a small town at the edge of an arctic wilderness where a rag tag bunch of professional wanderers and scientists wash dishes, solve the mysteries of science and nature, and hold talent shows. Here amid so many like-minded souls he is free in his voiceover to hear their stories and let his imagination make connections at will.
At times this essay film seems like an elementary school book report on Antarctica, easily distracted by ice cream, men with oddly shaped hands, a woman who can fit into hand luggage, and the possibility that penguins really are insane. (And of course, the real humdinger conundrum: why don’t chimpanzees ride less intelligent animals?) But the lightness in tone is deceptive, this last question seeming trivial until the next frame catches a penguin bolting from the migrating crowd towards the mountains, flippers psychotically outstretched. Apparently some penguins really do go nuts and end up waddling eighty miles in the wrong direction towards certain death. Herzog doesn’t explain the possible parallel here between deranged penguins and those who for whatever reason find themselves drawn magnetically to the end of the world; it may be that he was simply interested in deranged penguins for their own sake.
It is surprising not to hear more commentary in the voiceover on figures like Shackleton, who embody the kind of hubris we see in other classic Herzog characters. Instead, he gets lumped in with explorers like Amundsen and Scott, about which something “does not feel right.” As he explains about the race for the poles in the early 1900’s: “It may be a futile wish to keep a few white spots left on our map, but human adventure in its original sense lost its meaning, became an issue for the Guinness Book of World Records.” Herzog has a hard time thinking of a geography that inspires such a rich array of fundamental thoughts as a place that can be tamed. As a frontier, it humbles us, permits authentic encounter in ways nowhere else does. Only a place characterized by such bold oppositions, beauty and hostility, activity and austerity, volcanic magma and glacial ice, can live up to its own myth as the end of the world. One scientist tells us that when all the wind stops, Antarctica is so quiet that you can stand outside and hear your heart beating. Or the seals singing “like Pink Floyd.”
The technical bravery which led to the nature cinematography in Heart of Glass and Scream of Stone is absent in Encounters. There are a number of mesmerizing diving sequences that taper off in abstraction, but I was waiting for the hand-cranked time lapse or adventurous long take over crags of frozen steam, neither of which occurred. Herzog is into what he calls “ecstatic” truth, which can be encountered “through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” This mysterious process is the always the kind of thing I imagined happening in Antarctica, but the wilderness seems either resistant to such a reading, or Herzog failed to find a foothold any farther in than McMurdo. McMurdo and nearby camps are interesting enough however, and even though I am slightly bummed at not discovering an “ecstatic” Antarctica, I felt blessed by the attempt.