Monday, November 3, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Penguin suicide and prostitution; a linguist on a continent with no languages; Aztec royalty; the death of an empire. “Encounters at the End of the World” threatens to bury you underneath an avalanche of characters, images, and ideas, yet director Werner Herzog manages to create a mostly cohesive vision in this cerebral yet accessible documentary. It’s both an examination of a continent almost no one has seen, as well as a look at the humans who choose to inhabit the most hostile environment on our planet.

Herzog grew up in West Germany, and started making his fiercely original films in the late 1960’s. His 1972 film “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” became an international art house success and cemented his status as the leader of the German “New Wave” movement. Since then, he has gone on to direct over 38 films and documentaries, 15 television shows, and 4 operas. Throughout his career, he’s been known for experimentation in both his films and documentaries and their controversial subject matters.

In the aftermath of widespread critical and commercial success of his 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man”, the National Science Foundation awarded Herzog a grant to make a documentary in Antarctica on anything he chose, despite his warnings that he would not “come up with another film about penguins.” His questions about nature, he warned, are more difficult to answer.

In a way, Herzog has set out to make the anti “March of the Penguins.” His view of nature is neither romantic nor anthropomorphic, a fact that those who have seen “Grizzly Man” won’t find surprising. Through startling imagery and narration, Herzog presents a vision of nature as cold, violent, and devoid of humanness. Yet despite this detached appraisal of our universe, we find in his films and underlying respect and even awe for nature.

If anything, see this film for the chance to see a side of Antarctica you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. He records a startling landscape below the ice shelf, filled with creatures and sounds more alien than anything imagined in the science fiction lexicon. His camera follows deranged penguins abandoning their colony to make an intentionally suicidal death march into the Antarctic oblivion. And he discovers natural structures more spiritual than any cathedral.

Herzog also gives equal attention to the continent’s human inhabitants. They include a philosophizing Caterpillar-driver, a welder descended from Aztec royalty, an Eastern European refugee still haunted by his escape from behind the Iron Curtain, and a linguist on a continent with no native languages. Some inhabitants will fascinate, while others will bore.

One of the most darkly comic points of the film begins with a look at the original base station setup by the continent’s first explorers. Herzog contends that the members of this first team were the early protagonists of the world record mania and the pursuit of personal glory that saturates our many cultures today. Herzog follows the trajectory of this degeneration all the way to the present-day where Ashrita Furman, who, after claiming multiple world records in the most absurd forms of travel (including cartwheeling and walking while balancing a milk bottle on his head) declares his intentions to become the first person to pogo-stick his way to Antarctica.

I came away with the impression that Herzog couldn’t decide whether he’s more intrigued by the Antarctic wilderness or by his human subjects. And I can’t blame him. I was practically hypnotized by the entire mosaic, whether it was the startling underwater world of the Ross Ice Shelf, the ramblings and exploits of the cliché self-identified “travelers,” or the hard rock-stylings of the doomsday obsessed biologists.

The final (unstated) subject of the film is Herzog himself. This is no ordinary nature documentary or human biopic; it’s Herzog’s attempt to find meaning and purpose (or lack thereof) in a baffling universe. We feel his frustration and elation as the film progresses. At times he abruptly cuts off his interviewees, sparing us from their stories “that go on forever.” At other points, his camera lingers on the awe-inspiring majesty of the Antarctic wilderness. Some may find that his persistent presence detracts from the experience, but in fact it’s precisely what elevates the film beyond the realm of National Geographic and into art.

In his own inimitable style, Herzog has again managed to deal with the larger unanswered questions of our lives without resorting to metaphysical masturbation or gross simplifications.

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