Encounters at the End of the World

Henry Kaiser/THINKFilm
Werner Herzog/United States 2008

Werner Herzog is on a roll right now in arguably his best form since the mid-1970s, and his latest documentary should be fascinating enough to captivate most viewers, from his loyal fan base to post-Grizzly Man converts.

Anyone who’s ever watched The Thing and wondered what life is like at an Antarctic research station will certainly find some of his or her mysteries addressed and more to hold his or her attention. The director was invited to camp McMurdo in Antarctica by Henry Kaiser, the marine biologist who supplied the stunning underwater shots that doubled as space footage in Herzog’s crazed sci-fi mockumentary The Wild Blue Yonder.

The result is a both a rare glimpse into an otherworldly wilderness and a typically Herzogian study of a cast of characters who – in the words of one resident – have fallen to the bottom of the earth because of their refusal to be tethered down.

Herzog warns us at the start that he won’t be touching on the most popular polar subject: penguins. But eventually even cynical old Herzog can’t help but include a chapter on the lovably hardy critters. The result is hardly Happy Feet, though, but rather a section examining penguin mental illnesses. It’s to the director’s credit that he manages to craft a moment of genuine, unexpected poignancy regarding such over-familiar zoological specimens.

Herzog’s main concern is to discover what drives people to live and work in such remote and unforgiving terrain, and he duly discovers that the continent attracts some of the strangest people on earth.

One of the first subjects he meets is surely the first interviewee on film to be captioned “Philosopher/Forklift Driver”. Elsewhere we hear from assorted hippies, gurus and intrepid travelers who’ve decided to take one last leap into the unknown country. And there’s even an expert linguist who’s ended up at the only continent never to spawn an indigenous language. They all regale Werner with some excellent tales of their adventures, some of which might even rival the wildness of Herzog’s own exploits.

Along the way we also learn about some of the worthwhile research being attended to at McMurdo, including analysis of seal physiology and an experiment to isolate neutrino particles using helium balloons. There’s also a sequence where Herzog films an active volcano, which has echoes of his earlier La soufrière, the film that helped forge his reputation for cinematic recklessness.

It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable journey, building on the ecological themes touched upon in Grizzly Man and continuing Herzog’s ongoing philosophical investigation into man’s innate desire for exploration. The film is also further evidence of an undeniable fact that would have been unthinkable in the late 1980s – that Herzog’s style of documentary filmmaking would one day find its place in the mainstream.

© 2008 James Rocarols. All rights reserved.

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