The world is doomed, and Werner Herzog, for one, is happy about it. Unlike his last documentary, the critically acclaimed Grizzly Man (2005), in which the iconic German filmmaker announced in his gloomiest Teutonic tones, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility, and murder,” Encounters at the End of the World bubbles with childlike delight at the bleak beauty, the dire forebodings, and the human and animal eccentricity he encounters in this episodic tour of Antarctica. He might promise at the beginning that this will not be another film about penguins, but before the end of End, he’ll watch one walk off, disoriented or driven, toward the center of the continent and, as he cheerily points out in his voiceover narration, “certain death.”
VIDEO: The trailer for Encounters at the End of the World
We should all be so lucky. But for the most part Herzog’s notion of “end” in this film refers to place, not time. As one of his interviewees points out, Antarctica is where all the lines in the globe converge and all the rootless wanderers eventually descend. Herzog’s kind of people, in other words. At the ramshackle US base at McMurdoo Station (which he describes as looking like a mining camp), he meets a host of such characters. Like William Jirsa, a linguist who notes how he’s managed to settle down in the only continent without languages. And Karen Joyce, a computer expert whose story includes traveling across South America in a sewer pipe. Any one of these people could warrant a Werner Herzog movie of his or her own.
But Herzog feels confined by the civilized limitations of the settlement — which does boast an ATM machine. So after participating in a week-long survival training session that entails building igloos and wandering around with a bucket on one’s head to simulate white-out conditions, he heads for outposts where scientists study glaciers, microscopic life, volcanoes, seals, and, inevitably, penguins. The news they offer is grim — the human species is doomed. Not just from such trendy dangers as global warming, though Douglas MacAyeal’s images of glaciers the size of Rhode Island breaking from the continent and melting in mid ocean are chilling. No, it’s just the nature of things, a fact lightheartedly emphasized by cell biologist Samuel S. Bowser, who amuses his colleagues by screening ’50s-era sci-fi disaster films like Them!
Meanwhile, there’s so much to see and talk about, and that lust for exploration and experience might be the ultimate end of the world, “end” here meaning “purpose” or “goal.” The images in End rank among Herzog’s most rapturous. Some are borrowed, like those otherworldly scenes under the ice of the Ross Sea shot by diver Henry Kaiser, images Herzog also used in his bizarre 2005 space-movie parody, The Wild Blue Yonder. But most come from Herzog’s dogged DP, Peter Zeitlinger, who follows the director as he climbs through volcanic vents or treks through underground passageways to see what, if anything, there is under the South Pole, the utter, geographic end of the earth.
Maybe that deviant penguin wasn’t disoriented at all, just curious to explore and see what it could see. If so, it will encounter nothing stranger than Werner Herzog himself.