Herzog’s ‘Encounters’ " oddness, beauty
September 12, 2008
Read the title of “Encounters at the End of the World” carefully, for it has two meanings. As he journeys to the South Pole, which is as far as you can get from everywhere, Werner Herzog also journeys to the prospect of man’s oblivion. Far under the eternal ice, he visits a curious tunnel whose walls have been decorated by various mementos, including a frozen fish that is far away from its home waters. What might travelers from another planet think of these souvenirs, he wonders, if they visit long after all other signs of our civilization have vanished?
Herzog has come to live for a while at the McMurdo Research Station, the largest habitation on Antarctica. He was attracted by underwater films taken by his friend Henry Kaiser, which show scientists exploring the ocean floor. They open a hole in the ice with a blasting device, then plunge in, collecting specimens, taking films, nosing around. They investigate an undersea world of horrifying carnage, inhabited by creatures so ferocious we are relieved they are too small to be seen. And also by enormous seals who sing to one another. In order not to limit their range, Herzog observes, the divers do not use a tether line, so they must trust themselves to find the hole in the ice again. I am afraid to even think about that.
Herzog is a romantic wanderer, drawn to the extremes. He makes as many documentaries as fiction films, is prolific in the chronicles of his curiosity, and here moseys about McMurdo chatting with people who have chosen to live here in eternal day or night. They are a strange population. One woman likes to have herself zipped into luggage and performs this feat on the station’s talent night. One man was once a banker and now drives an enormous bus. A pipe-fitter matches the fingers of his hands together to show that the second and third are the same length ” genetic evidence, he says, that he is descended from Aztec kings.
But I make the movie sound like a travelogue or an exhibit of eccentrics, and it is a poem of oddness and beauty. Herzog is like no other filmmaker, and to return to him is to be welcomed into a world vastly larger and more peculiar than the one around us. The underwater photography alone would make a film, but there is so much more.
His visit to Antarctica was not intended, he warns us at the outset, to take footage of “fluffy penguins.” But there are some penguins in the film, and one of them embarks on a journey that haunts my memory to this moment, long after it must have ended.