Encounters at the End of the World

On Saturday night, I saw Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World at the LA Film Festival (the end credits dedicate the movie to Roger Ebert). Whether you enjoy Herzog's movies, especially his documentaries, depends quite a bit on whether you appreciate his world view. To steal some words from Bogdanovich, you see a Herzog movie, you know "who the devil made it."

This, his latest documentary, is a meandering account of Herzog's journey to Antarctica to understand what type of person goes down to the end of the world. Given a grant by the National Science Foundation, Herzog warned that he would not be going down to shoot another movie about "cute, furry penguins" but instead was curious about, among other issues, why men domesticated horses while he had yet to see a chimp or monkey riding a goat. Or something like that. It's not surprising, Herzog's attraction to people who'd choose to live and work in the extreme conditions of Antarctica. Give me your bold, your insane, your ambitious, and your bizarre, those living on the edge: that has always been Herzog's fascination.

If there were the equivalent of typefaces for voices, I'd pay an unbelievably high number for that of Herzog. Of course, it's not just his thick German accent but also his severe and often dour outlook on the world that combine to form one of the more distinctive voices in film. In one scene, as a linguistics expert speaks on screen, the audio fades out and Herzog's voiceover comes in over the image of that man speaking. Herzog muses that during the time that he listened to the man speaking, some three languages likely died out in the world. Another time, as a woman speaks on screen, the audio fades out, and Herzog chimes on: "Her story went on forever."

Much of the humor of the movie is in such directorial asides. On landing at Antarctica, his first stop is Camp McMurdo, of which he notes "contained abominations such as an aerobics classes and yoga studio."

When he does visit a small colony of penguins, his attention is drawn, naturally, towards the same odd behavior he seeks out in men. He asks the local naturalist who has been studying the penguins if he has noticed any signs of derangement in the penguins. Confused, the naturalist notes that he hasn't seen any penguins bashing their heads against the rocks. But Herzog has the last laugh as he spots one penguin heading off in the wrong direction, towards the mountains, and towards certain gloom, a point Herzog makes with a tone of utter satisfaction.

At movie's end, when Herzog seizes on a message of impending environmental doom and the extinction of humanity, it's almost so conventional as to be surprising. But the real unifying theme is a common quality in all the people he encounters there. They are all dreamers, but the type who've gone as far away from the rest of civilization as they can, and when they can go no further, they find themselves together, at the South Pole.