Encounters At the End of the World
Opens September 10, at the Chauvel.
There is nothing quite like a Herzog documentary, and Encounters is an example of what he does very well. Because he is a highly intelligent, well-versed global citizen, not to mention an extremely experienced filmmaker, he gets away with taking a highly personal and idiosyncratic approach to documentary, which he describes as a search for “ecstatic truth”, and which manifests in docu-dramas, such as The Wild Blue Yonder. In films like Grizzly Bear he is not only the narrator, but a character.
Encounters is framed by Herzog’s German-accented English, in which he declares his interest and intentions with the documentary:
These images, taken under the ice of the Ross Sea in Antarctica, were the reason I wanted to go to this continent. The pictures were taken by a friend of mine, one of these expert divers.
Who were the people I was going to meet at the End of the World; what were their dreams? We flew into the unknown, a seemingly endless void.” I was surprised that I was even on this plane; 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.
My questions about nature, I let them know, were different [stock footage from old American westerns kicks in] I told them I kept wondering, why is it that human beings put on masks with feathers to conceal their identity; and why do they saddle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy.
Herzog proceeds to take us on a rambling tour through the wondrous Antarctic landscape: there is a chronological flow, but it’s essentially a “journey of interviews”, with different scientists and technicians living at and around the McMurdo Station (the largest station in Antarctica, and American), in the massive Ross Sea. He introduces us to the local transport driver, an ex-banker who went into non-profit aid in the third world; a heavy machinery driver, also a philosopher;
Discovery Films take a little poetic license in their marketing materials, saying:
There is a hidden society at the end of the world. 1000 men and women live
together under unbelievably close quarters in Antarctica, risking their
lives and sanity in search of cutting edge science.
It’s not that they don’t risk their lives and sanity, but this documentary is a bit more meditative and little less thrilling. What Herzog instead provides is a string of both poetic and prosaic moments that support one underlying proposition: we (humans) are merely witnesses to the glory of nature – and like the dinosaurs, our time will pass.
The underlying agenda of the film is a warning about climate change, which comes not from Herzog, but from the mouths of the scientists who spend 24-7 on the melting berg. Nevertheless, it’s a repeat of the concern and tactics used in Wild Blue Yonder (which, incidentally, uses some of the same, and similar, underwater footage).
Encounters is both awe-inspiring and profoundly unsettling: for me, watching it was an exercise in existential angst. There is one brief excursion into the behaviour of penguins, that brought me to tears. It’s artfully done, and fascinating – and it does, on some level, provoke a profound (if not ecstatic) realisation.