Monday, July 07, 2008

The End of the World As Herzog Knows It


documentary directed by Werner Herzog

As a director and as a storyteller, Werner Herzog has always been drawn to extremes. Known for his portraits of individuals—both real and fictional—who push relentlessly, often self-destructively, at the outer edges of the human experience, he’s finally found an entire continent that exemplifies that obsessive impulse. Appropriately, “Encounters at the End of the World” isn’t so much his love letter to Antarctica as a testament to a place that, in more ways than one, embodies the limits of mankind’s striving.

While the impetus for “Encounters” is conventional enough, the resulting film defies easy description. Lured by the otherworldly beauty of a friend’s underwater footage of divers beneath the polar ice (shown periodically in the movie, accompanied by suitably unearthly choral music), Herzog embarks on an expedition to the source. He lands first at a distinctly unbeautiful station called McMurdo, which sounds unsettlingly like “McMurder” in Herzog’s Germanic tones and which looks, as he aptly observes, like a mining town or space colony on a distant planet. From there he ventures forth to various outposts, filming and interviewing the motley assortment of characters that populate the area. These range from scientists quietly going about their field research to miscellaneous service employees who have ended up at McMurdo for a panoply of reasons. Many are misfits, eccentrics with odd fixations, and quixotic adventurers of distinctly Herzogian vintage—wandering spirits who would have instinctively understood Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Into the Wild. (In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Herzog locates their kindred spirit in a lone penguin with an apparent death wish.) Yet however harrowing or unfulfilling their previous existences, many seem to have found a measure of peace here, at the literal ends of the earth.

Per usual, Herzog achieves a tricky balance between irony and sympathy in presenting these individuals’ stories, although (or perhaps because) he actively injects his own voice, literally and figuratively, into the film: if ever there were a documentarian auteur, Herzog would be it. Not that this is a bad thing, by any means. His narration, combined with his characteristically high-handed editing, dryly deflates the loquacity of some while bringing out the latent poetry and startling insights of others. He also displays a keen eye for the surreal quality that’s conferred on mundane activities by the simple incongruity of their context—whether it’s growing hothouse tomatoes, operating an ice cream machine, watching old science fiction movies, or holding a midnight musical jam session in the brilliant sunlight of a South Pole summer.

Percolating underneath all this blithe strangeness, however, is a current of foreboding that the Antarcticans’ meticulous explorations and rituals are merely a form of whistling in the dark. Early on in the film, a “survival training” class performs what quickly devolves into a comically absurd exercise in futility, wearing buckets over their heads to simulate the total lack of visibility in a snowstorm even as they struggle vainly to work together to find their bearings. The sight, more than a little reminiscent of the painting “The Blind Leading the Blind,” serves as something of an omen—echoed later in other sequences and comments by both Herzog and, more obliquely, his interviewees—that humanity’s time on this earth may be drawing to an end. The double meaning inherent in the title gains resonance as the film progresses, reinforced by constant reminders of human mortality.

Still, the prevailing tone of “Encounters” is anything but bleak. In fact, it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, without ever descending into clownishness or diminishing a sense of genuine, unvarnished wonder at the power that drew Herzog in the first place. For every sardonic poke at human folly, there’s a pan of a sublime expanse of ice or sea, or a long tracking underwater shot revealing a breathtaking kaleidoscope of color and light, that manages to put mankind’s struggles in a distinctly humbling perspective. It’s that combination of humor and humility that makes the film irresistibly watchable and, ultimately, indelible.



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