"The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica -- even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins." -- Werner Herzog
Forget everything you know about cute penguins searching for family values in a white wilderness. Encounters at the End of the World shows us what working and living in Antarctica is really like. Better yet, it's told through the keen eyes of Werner Herzog, the adventurer-filmmaker who made the classic Fitzcarraldo in the wilds of the Amazon. Herzog should also be considered an adventurer-philosopher, for he's as interested in the Why as he is the How of the scientific work being done at the South Pole. Encounters introduces us to a dozen fascinating people united by a common desire to step off the charted maps and into the unknown.
Herzog begins his thoughtful narration by spelling out the reason he made Encounters. He saw some of the underwater footage taken beneath the Ross Ice Shelf by ice diver Henry Kaiser and was fascinated by its otherworldliness. The researchers at McMurdo and other camps live in an almost alien environment operating under different rules, like, for starters, the fact that the sun never sets for a number of months each year. Rather than bore us with statistics about the extreme weather conditions, Herzog takes us through the survival course given to visitors. To simulate the effects of a "white-out" blizzard, ten newbies are roped together with wastebaskets over their heads and asked to search for their instructor "lost" in the snow. Navigating by their instincts, the group goes off in a totally wrong direction and is soon completely fouled up. Since these people are by no means dummies, we wonder what kind of slip-up might result in turning us into a human icicle.
Herzog's cameras take us to several exotic locations. At a diving camp, Henry Kaiser drills a hole in the ice and films the myriad of weird creatures in the subzero waters below -- weird tentacled starfish, amorphous cucumber-shaped creatures and thousands of clam-things scattered like rocks on the blank ocean floor. A team extracts milk from a mother seal as part of a study in weight loss; a scientist tells us that the waxy milk is 65% fat but has no lactose. A polar ice expert plays time-lapse orbital scans showing how the Ross ice shelf moves and drifts over time: most of Antarctica is much less stable than we think.
Genetic biologists study the DNA of one-celled creatures that build enormous tree-like colonies, using tentacle-like pseudopods to gather tiny bits of grit to form an exoskeleton around their vulnerable bodies. Werner Herzog notes that, when you really think about it, even these one-celled animals fulfill the basic definition of intelligent life.
We see volcano specialists climb partway into the caldera of Mt. Erebus, which has an active, violent magma pit. Even at the rim it's possible to be hit by a "bomb" of molten metal tossed into the air, which prompts the head vulcanist to give Herzog a basic safety tip: don't run or duck but instead face the volcano like a baseball outfielder, so you can see if what's flying overhead is coming in your direction. They climb into volcano-formed ice tunnels and discover a surreal underground ice cave. Of course, any of these tube vents could fill with toxic gas without warning.
Herzog finds that these explorers into the unknown are not cold pragmatists, but men and women with inquisitive, open minds. Physicists launch a helium balloon to detect and study neutrinos in a part of the sky far away from man-made electronic disturbances. The head researcher defines a neutrino as an almost spiritual thing. So far, a neutrino can be measured only by its effects, but not captured or observed directly.
The most interesting part of the show is Herzog's interviews with various camp personnel, who share tendencies toward spirituality or extreme adventurism. The solitude amplifies their sense of inner harmony. One plumbing contractor has oddly proportioned fingers that identify him as a descendant of Aztec royalty. A construction worker imparts his clear-cut philosophy to Herzog. A biologist likes to show his crew apocalyptic science fiction movies, prompting Herzog to pursue a speech about the likelihood that man will soon make himself extinct. Although Global Warming is mentioned, Herzog does not make the subject into a main issue.
Herzog uses staggeringly beautiful images of extreme nature to illustrate his personal opinions, as he did in the Fitzcarraldo documentary Burden of Dreams. In the older film Herzog unloaded a bitter, pessimistic tirade condemning the outwardly attractive Amazon jungle as a horrifying realm of beasts, insects, plants and microbes all battling and consuming one another. His opinions in Encounters are much more gentle but still a bit on the caustic side. Herzog marvels at the exploits of the colonial explorers of the early 20th century (we see ancient B&W clips) but frowns on their pointless and costly race to be the first to the pole. To further illustrate his point, we see footage of a professional Guinness Book of Records man who intends to pogo-stick his way to the South Pole, just to get his name on an official blotter.
Herzog is not above interrupting a chatty interviewee with his own overdubbed voice, saying that the person went on forever and paraphrasing his speech into something shorter. He also seems determined to undermine the cultural obsession with cute penguins. He asks the local penguin expert if the birds sometimes go crazy or if there are any gay penguins. The answer is both yes and no. Some penguins just get their interior compasses mixed up; Herzog's camera catches one wrong-way waddler heading to the inland mountains instead of toward the water. The local rule is to not interfere, so the last time we see the bird, he's still marching toward certain doom.
Encounters at the End of the World's game group of adventurers are at least a little bit like the penguin, wandering off the map just to see what happens. Herzog shows us remarkable people like the Eastern European refugee who keeps a 20 kg survival bag packed and ready at all times, should he have to make a fast exit. Another persistent traveler talks about hitchhiking from the U.S. to Bolivia and driving a garbage truck across equatorial Africa -- passing through a war or two on the way and being rescued by drunken Russian soldiers. Her trick for the base camp talent show is to fold and compress herself into a bundle small enough to be packed into a carry-on airline bag! Herzog makes it all seem important, from the fancy soft ice cream machine that's the hit of McMurdo, to the Hawaiian poems a professor has painted on his electronic apparatus to harmonize with his transcendental investigations into subatomic particles. Encounters at the End of the World is the best film I've seen about Antarctica -- it fires our imagination and puts the adventure back into science.
Image and Discovery Films' two-disc Encounters at the End of the World is a fine enhanced DVD of this high-def production. A simultaneous Blu-ray version is also being offered. Herzog, producer Henry Kaiser, and cameraman Peter Zeitlinger appear on the commentary, talking about side issues and how each became attached to the show.
Disc one also has five featurettes and a trailer. Under the Ice and Over the Ice assemble impressive outtakes backed by Kaiser's spacey music. They make excellent meditation videos. Dive Locker Interview: Werner Herzog Talks with Rob Robbins and Henry Kaiser is a lengthy interview with the station's dive master. The unseen Herzog asks for poetic statements about the science fiction-y environment below the ice, but Robbins keeps coming back with statements about practical underwater precautions. Slide Guitar & Exorcism @ The South Pole is a sort of "goof video" done by Kaiser during his first Antarctic visit in 2001. He uses a South Pole marker to play a slide guitar "around the world". Then the video shifts to a crazy party/ritual event in the engineering spaces, where a bearded technician "exorcises" the camp's ice-tunneling tractor. Much music and frivolity follow. A final featurette Seals & Men is a brief peek at some friendly-looking seals lounging on the ice.
Off by itself on the second disc, director Jonathan Demme interviews Werner Herzog before an approving audience. Demme has just seen Encounters and praises it to the heavens. The two work up a friendly enthusiasm for the filmmaking game and show their appreciation for critic Roger Ebert, who receives a dedication title on Herzog's film. We hear about the director's childhood in Bavaria and his adventures on those jungle movies with the wild man Klaus Kinski. Herzog also tells us that the sub-ice pack diving footage also inspired his free-form science-fiction pastiche The Wild Blue Yonder. The discussion becomes so spirited that an announcer finally has to intercede and break it off. The always-interesting Herzog makes the interview the highlight of the disc's extras.
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