Humans, not penguins, at the tip of the globe
September 16, 2008
ASPEN ” Introducing “Encounters at the End of the World,” Werner Herzog cautions that his documentary on Antarctica is not about to focus on penguins. But given the German director’s filmography ” including “Grizzly Man” and “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” which probe man’s tendencies toward foolhardy isolation and self-destruction ” and the ominous, mischievous voice Herzog uses throughout “Encounters,” the warning is unnecessary. It is apparent that Herzog is concerned with human activity.
Penguins, however, do make an appearance in the film, and it is more than a cameo role. The camera settles on a group of three penguins, and Herzog points out that one is headed toward the waterline, presumably in search of food. Another is headed back to the flock, for companionship, protection, out of a sense of duty.
The third penguin is headed for the mountains, some 80 kilometers away. We are told that there is no logic behind the journey, and that the only possible result is death. Herzog doesn’t say so, but it’s no great leap to see that end as lonely, miserable, and unnecessary.
Again, Herzog seems not to be interested so much in penguin nature as in human nature. The wayward bird is a stand-in for the puzzling group of people Herzog finds at the southern extremes of the earth. There is little ordinary logic for humans to be in Antarctica. It is not a place one would go to for either food or companionship, far less the inhospitable environment. And if you still found reason to venture forth, it is not easy to get to. And even tougher to return from ” ask Ernest Shackleton, whose 1914 expedition to the Antarctic got his crew stuck in the ice for two years.
Still, humanity has some of that penguin in them. For whatever reason ” curiosity, challenge, escape, mental misfunction ” mankind has, for 100 years now, headed south. There, in a place where the actual land can be indistinguishable from the sea frozen over with ice several feet thick, society has taken hold.
“Encounters at the End of the World” is aptly named. Herzog seems to have gone to Antarctica with no specific purpose in mind; rather, he shows up with his camera and sees what there is to be found there. With his philosophical approach, he raises issues of the environment, physics, the animal kingdom, geography and history, moving deftly, if somewhat haphazardly, from one relevant point to the next.
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Mostly what Herzog encounters are humans, and their activities. They are almost exclusively of the male species ” it is a half hour before we see a woman onscreen ” and even more exclusively of the offbeat variety. One resident ” a linguist who notes that he’s living in a place with no native language ” theorizes that the humans who are most detached from reality have fallen down to the bottom of the world.
Oddly, or poignantly, it is not a place of beauty that humankind has built in this world of ice, sea, whiteness, emptiness, seals and at least one very active volcano. The social center of Antarctica is McMurdo Station, a National Science Foundation outpost on the southern tip of Ross Island ” some 2,200 miles south of New Zealand. Someone likens McMurdo to an old mining town, but this description is accurate only if the sense of nostalgic charm is eliminated from the equation; McMurdo is more like an exurb by scientists, for scientists, with no thought to esthetics ” and still under construction, with all the mud and machinery that implies.
The lack of physical charm is more than compensated for by the occupants, human and otherwise. In the latter category are the seals, docile, amiable creatures whose underwater noises are described, quite accurately, as being like something out of Pink Floyd. On the human side are the philosophers, physicists, explorers, divers ” and even a few musicians. Herzog mines all of them in a lyrical, funny and illuminating examination of the quirky pursuits at the true underbelly of the planet.