Laura CliffordFilmmaker Werner Herzog is best known for his seminal fiction works as “Nosferatu: The Vampire,” “Aquirre: The Wrath of God,” "Fitzcarraldo” and “Rescue Dawn.” However, he also proved to be a top-notch documentary maker with “Heart of Glass,” “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” the stunning “Lessons of Darkness” and “Grizzly Man.” Now, he and cameraman/collaborator Peter Zeitlinger trek to the farthest reaches of the earth and land in Antarctica for quite unusual “Encounters at the Edge of the World.”
Werner Herzog promises, early in the film, that it is not another movie about penguins” and he, mostly, sticks to his promise. The project started after Herzog saw the incredible underwater video footage shot by a diver/scientist studying the world beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice fields. The National Science Foundation and the Discovery Channel footed the bill for the documentary maker’s two-man expedition to the ice bound world at the most southern end of our planet.
At first, upon arriving at McMurdo Bay, Herzog is critical over the mining-town look of the American settlement (with some 1100 inhabitants) but soon, because of the wacky scientists and workers plus the magnificent snowscape, the magic of the strange land wins Werner over. He interviews the denizens of McMurdo, ranging from a banker-turned-truck-driver, a plumber claiming to be a direct descendent of the Aztecs, a computer expert who entertains her fellows when she contorts her body to fit into a piece of carry-on luggage to a linguist in a land without language.
Herzog also interviews the researchers who explore the complex world of the Antarctic. Some of these professional dreamers,” as Herzog calls them, see the ice-bound environment as a dynamic living entity. Others study the calls of the seals sounds that reminded me strong of the new age electronic composer, Morton Subotnick. Another taciturn penguin researcher (yes, there are penguins) is prodded by interviewer Herzog to comment about gay penguins, penguins as prostitutes, insanity among penguins and penguin suicide the later is punctuated by the image of a lone little bird dashing headlong toward the mountains, not the nourishing sea.
The thing that drew Herzog to Antarctic the awesome undersea photography he viewed before his journey is given good shrift as the camera glides above a sea bottom teaming with life. As a SCUBA diver, I am familiar with the stunning world below the surface of the frozen continent (well, I’ve seen a lot of photos of it, anyway) and Herzog uses the great video footage with the haunting sounds of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. Herzog’s use of majestic music, in general in his films and, in particular, here, contributes to the stately grace of the film.
Werner Herzog has long been one of my favorite filmmakers. His willingness, whether it be in his fact or fiction films, to go to the limit - just look at Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo” (where he had a ship dragged over a mountain) makes him always a pleasure to watch. (Sometimes, I think I live vicariously through the man’s filmmaking exploits.) “Encounters…” is the culmination of the decades of experience Herzog has gained as a filmmaker and is his best documentary to date. I don’t say this often (actually, rarely), I give it an A+.
Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man," "Rescue Dawn") saw some pictures shot underneath the ice in Antarctica and decided he wanted to go there. With a grant from the NSF and a mockingly stern avowal that he would not be shooting a penguin picture, Herzog lands at McMurdo and begins interviewing thefirst person he meets - the bus driver who comes to greet the plane. So begins an incredible exploration of a place and its endlessly fascinating people - dreamers and scientists and technicians all drawn from other places to a frozen world.
Much like his last documentary, "Grizzly Man," Herzog leaps from another man's photographic work into his own movie. He uses footage shot by others and his own interviews to create a uniquely Herzogian portrait. From that bus driver to a marine biologist making his last dive, everyone has fascinating tales to tell of both their own personal histories and their work on the continent. We marvel at an iceberg 'bigger than the country that *built* the Titanic' and underwater landscapes divers refer to as 'the cathedral.' Herzog shows us mystical and stunning sea creatures set to the heavenly sounds of the Bulgarian Women's Choir, then furthers the religious symbolism by describing a diver suiting up like a priest preparing for mass.
He also exhibits his very dry sense of humor when he actually does get around to those penguins. Trying to get a rise out of his taciturn expert, he asks if penguins ever exhibit gay behavior or insanity perhaps (there is one sad specimen intent on rushing inland where only death could await). He finds linguists on a continent with no language and a single cell organism that shows signs of intelligence. He even revisits the mouth of a live volcano ('watch for bombs in the lava lake!').
Werner Herzog is a global cinematic treasure who has shared his intense curiosity and spirit of adventure via film for over four decades with no sign of slowing. It is a sublime pleasure to spend time with this filmmaker and "Encounters at the End of the World" is a trip from start to finish.
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