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Tuesday, November 25, 2008


When the National Science Foundation invited filmmaker Werner Herzog to come to Antarctica to make a documentary, he "left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins." ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2007) is indeed much more than that, although it does have penguins in it.

Herzog's friend Henry Kaiser, a diver who explores the watery world below the thick ice covering Texas-sized Ross Bay, made a short film called "Under the Ice" which first interested Herzog in the desolate continent. Kaiser's underwater photography is utterly stunning, plunging us into a world every bit as strange as any alien landscape. Bizarre lifeforms scuttle along the bottom on undulating tentacles. A large Weddell seal, seeming almost like some curious, sweetly-serene E.T., leads us through a labyrinth of faintly sunlit ice tunnels. A self-illuminated jellyfish that resembles a beautifully-ornate organic lamp drifts languidly through the water.

Narrator Herzog has an odd sort of curiosity about things, and in Antarctica there are a lot of things to be oddly curious about. He comes across a lone researcher named Dr. Ainley who has lived among the penguins for so long that he's almost lost the ability to converse with humans. "Dr. Ainley, is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?" Herzog asks. Ainley considers this for a moment, then tells of the occasional penguin that suddenly decides to waddle off resolutely toward the interior of the continent, alone, for no apparent reason. We see one such penguin who, after what appears to be some deep consideration, sets off for a mountain range 70 kilometers away, his tiny form dwarfed by the looming desolation ahead. Why? It's a strange and affecting sight, as we know that he will surely perish there. The odd Dr. Ainley, meanwhile, seems no less prone to some similar unknown impulse--it wouldn't surprise me to see him heading off toward those mountains himself someday.

Antarctica seems to attract odd people whom Herzog finds fascinating. The McMurdo polar base, which depresses him at first because it resembles "an ugly mining town", turns out to be rife with interesting characters for Herzog to seek out. One freaky-looking dude found growing tomatoes in a hothouse describes the base's inhabitants as "PhDs washing dishes, linguists on a continent with no languages", people who have fallen off the earth and accumulated at the bottom. Many of them seem to exist in a metaphysical daze, perpetually zoned-out by their surroundings--even the large Weddell seals that some of them are dedicated to studying provide a fitting soundtrack for this spaced-out existence by making noises amazingly like one of those early Pink Floyd soundscapes.

Herzog seems to find interesting people wherever he ventures on this endlessly-fascinating continent. A volcano watcher keeps his camera pointed into a lava pit that explodes periodically, sending molten rock through the air. Volcano etiquette, he explains, includes facing the explosion and following the lava's aerial arc so that one might step aside when necessary. Elsewhere, a physicist who's just released an enormous balloon that will help track neutrino activity from the stratosphere ecstatically gushes at length about how incredible neutrinos are, and how they seem to exist in their own separate universe, which also seems an apt description of him and his colleagues.

Visually, ENCOUNTERS captures the vast, intimidating emptiness of Antarctica well enough, and just as efficiently records the expressive faces and compelling stories of the assortment of souls who inhabit it. But nothing else compares to the world beneath the ice, which truly sets this documentary apart from anything else I've ever seen. Herzog remarks that the divers look to him like astronauts floating in space, and it's an environment that easily conveys such an impression. The solemn atmosphere of a vast cathedral is augmented by the soundtrack's ethereal choral music during these awe-inspiring sequences. Much of the rest of the film's evocative score is performed by diver Henry Kaiser himself, with David Lindley.

The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with Dolby digital sound. Audio commentary is provided by Herzog, producer Kaiser, and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Kaiser's film "Under the Ice" is included, along with "Over the Ice", a series of gorgeous helicopter shots of Antarctica's dry valleys near McMurdo Base. "Dive Locker Interview" is a tech-talk interview with divers Kaiser and the film's diving supervisor, Rob Robbins. "South Pole Exorcism" is a short film by Kaiser documenting his first trip to the continent, and includes the exorcism of evil engineer spirits from a tunneling machine. (Yes, these are people with too much time on their hands and not enough to do with it.) "Seals and Men" is a few minutes of the Weddell seals, followed by a trailer. The second disc consists of director Jonathan Demme's hour-long interview with Herzog before a live audience at New York's Museum of the Moving Image in June 2008.

As ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD winds toward its conclusion, Herzog begins to contemplate the fate of Mankind and its eventual demise. Ehh, whatever. The impression I choose to retain from watching this beautiful film is that of a world-traveling, deep-thinking philosopher who now drives a forklift at McMurdo base, who recalls a quote which seems descriptive of Herzog's filmic endeavor: "We are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence."

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