In the violently cold winter of November 1974, a thirty-two-year-old Werner Herzog, hearing of a close friend’s grievously serious illness in Paris, walked, with little more than a duffel bag, the 560 miles from Munich to The City of Lights, believing she would not succumb while he was on foot. Nineteen days into his journey, with 100 miles to go, he met a momentary twinge of doubt, as he recalled in “Of Walking in Ice,” the published diary of his trek.
“All at once driving snow, lightning, thunder and storm, everything at once, directly overhead, so suddenly that I was unable to find refuge again and tried instead to let the mess pass over me, leaning against the wall of a house, half-way protected from the wind. Immediately to my right at the corner of the house, a fanatical wolfhound stuck his head through the garden fence, baring his teeth at me. Within minutes a layer of water and snow was lying hand-deep on the street, and a truck splashed me with everything that was lying there. Shortly afterwards, the sun came out for a few seconds, then a torrential rainfall. I grappled forward from cover to cover. At the village school in Savieres, I debated whether I should drive to Paris, seeing some sense in that. But getting so far on foot and then driving? Better to live out this senselessness, if that’s what this is, to the very end.”
Throughout his filmmaking career, there‘s been more than a smidge of the final sentence’s ethos in his work. While almost every other director on the planet would take a more prudent approach, Herzog has sought out in many instances the most difficult, challenging, intrepid, and, one could argue, dangerously foolhardy ways to film his productions. So staggering are the stories of what seems like senseless risk in the making of films such as “Aguirre, Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” that the tales have become legend, to such a degree that they almost overwhelm the finished product. More recently, his highly lauded documentary, “Grizzly Man,” considered the very meaning of senselessness.
With “Encounters at the End of The World” Herzog travels to Antarctica, the most isolated spot on the planet, upon the invitation of the United States’ National Science Foundation, to explore life at the “very end.” From the moment Herzog disembarks from the US Air Force cargo plane at McMurdo Station in the midst of the austral summer, he meets a wonderful collection of “professional dreamers.” These contentedly itinerant — both professional scientists and those simply with advanced degrees or aspirations to work as cooks, drivers, and mechanics in a land where the compass is irrelevant — are bursting with stories, anecdotes stamped in their passports.
Among them is the driver of “Ivan the Terra Bus” — the hulking transport vehicle which ferries folks from the runway to McMurdo — who is a former banker from Colorado who joined the Peace Corps only to narrowly evade death by machete in Guatemala. Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist who studies B-15, a glacier larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, describes with bedeviled awe the prospective journey of the glacier as it begins to break up, melt and move inexorably north. There is the linguist tending to the greenhouse, William Jirsa, who has come to a continent with no indigenous human language. While Herzog directs gentle ribbing in the linguist’s direction, he clearly has an affinity for these undoubtedly eccentric nomads as they speak of lives in Antarctica which seem to subscribe to the anonymous inscription etched into a wooden railing: “I Sink into Bliss.”
Even as the film centers on these individual’s stories, Herzog does not overlook capturing the beauty of the barren and expansive landscape. It is a remarkable technical achievement, especially given that it was made with a mere crew of two; Herzog supervised the sound while cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger captured the pictures. “Encounters” is filled with panoramic helicopter shots of the towering glaciers, ethereal underwater scenes as divers float beneath a ceiling of ice and intimate images of Mt. Erebus, the continent’s most active volcano. A particularly powerful sequence combines underwater photography with the “Underwater Recordings of Seal Calls,” a trippy musical sound from the cuddly pinnipeds which suggests the type of sonic experimentation that would have gotten Brian Eno kicked out of Roxy Music. The film’s own soundtrack is dominated by appropriately atmospheric chorale music.
While the natural world obviously dominates as a visual backdrop, it is the part-time residents of McMurdo, whose wonder of Antarctica is immense, that interests Herzog as a filmmaker because, in part, you surmise, he has found a kindred mindset in their obsessive compulsiveness. This obsession of Herzog the director with the extremes of human existence can be seen as merely the act of taking earnest devotion to the edge. So the utterly fascinating characters, who share Herzog’s enthusiasm for the outer limits, and seem perfectly suited to a Herzog tale, fictional or otherwise, continue to abound. A friend of Herzog’s, Samuel Bowser, is a biologist contemplating his last dive beneath the ice while later celebrating the discovery of three new species with a roof-top guitar jam. Karen Joyce, a writer, recounts a three-day journey through South America riding on the back of a lorry, inside a sewer pipe, with only a porthole shaped view for the entire trip. Clive Oppenheimer, a curly haired volcanologist draped in scarves who sports an uncanny resemblance to Tom Baker, enthuses with good-natured brio as he stands on the precipice of a highly active volcano. University of Hawaii physicist Peter Gorham talks breathlessly about ANITA — the Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna — which is the project he launches into space to study neutrinos, elementary particles so indescribably minuscule that trillions pass through the human body every second.
But amongst these hearty explorers of the wondrous margins of existence, Herzog demonstrates that he is a thoughtful soul as he exhibits genuine restraint while interviewing Libor Zicha, a soft-spoken mechanic with passive eyes, who has suffered unspoken tragedies. When Zicha pauses before discussing his past in the Soviet Bloc, Herzog interrupts him and instead asks if he will remove the items from the meticulously packed 20-kilo bag that he always keeps at the ready. The efficiency of his packing underscores a man in need of control amongst his wandering impulse, who seeks solace in an untethered life.
Yet despite the tremendous attention spent with these dreamers, it is almost disconcerting that the film’s most potent moment centers on the continent’s iconic residents. From atop a bluff, the camera captures a phalanx of a dozen or so penguins scooching across a vast swath of land as they make their way to a body of water. A few turn back and return to the colony; the others continue forward. But a lone penguin breaks from the pack, stops for a moment of contemplation, and then begins to move in the direction of the interior of the continent and certain death. Later in the journey, scientists do not interfere with this lone penguin waddling into the abyss. So, he ambles along the ice, shuffling senselessly, to the very end.