Encounters at the End of the World
Ever since Werner Herzog's first film, Even Dwarfs Started Small, it's been clear that Herzog is something of a crazed individual. Ever since Les Blank's 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (you can find an excerpt on Youtube), it's been clear that his derangement can be harnessed, not just for making movies, but also within them, and Herzog has capitalized on that over the last 25 years or so by focusing on documentary features that he narrates or appears in. The latest of these efforts, Encounters at the End of the World, is yet another entry into that canon, and I found it absolutely spellbinding.
Herzog has structured this film quite loosely, shaping a sort of picaresque travelogue; there's no plot or overarching thesis, just an insane German traveling to various places in Antarctica and filming the derangement he sees there. The film was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and distributed by the Discovery Channel, and there are certainly sequences in it that would fit beautifully into any nature-as-spectacle film that IMAX theaters show at kids' museums. But Herzog's interest remains, as it always has, not in nature but in the effects of nature on humanity in extreme situations. In fact, he hates McMurdo, the largest settlement on Antarctica, not for being a dirty blight on the Antarctic glory, but for containing such mundanities as yoga and bowling.
Herzog's focus is on the kindred spirits he meets on the ice, those untouched by normalcies like yoga. The forklift operator whose knowledge of philosophy seems boundless. The failed linguist in charge of the greenhouse. The Apache plumber who claims to be descended from Mayan royalty, and has the finger length to prove it. The geologist who instructs him to carefully sidestep flying volcanic bombs. The woman who entertains the camp by having herself zipped into a duffel bag. And most of all Samuel Bowser, the marine biologist whose obsessions most clearly mirror Herzog's own. Bowser imagines a miniature version of himself in the microscopic world he studies, a world so full of savagery that he tells Herzog mankind dragged itself out of the ocean purely to escape it. And in his staff's downtime, Bowser shows them 50s science fiction films that more or less reenact his dream, with giant insects terrifying the populace, and the end of the world always nigh.
Herzog can't let go of the concept of the end of the world. More than one of the people he interviews uses the same metaphor: the South Pole, as the literal end of the world, is a place where people end up when nothing ties them down, or the rope that ties them down has too much slack. And here, at the geographical end of the world, a number of them are obsessed with the end of the human world, predicting - as Herzog often does - that nature will eventually wipe mankind off the face of the Earth. There are not, it seems, any technological optimists on Antarctica, but merely deranged people who have ended up in the South Pole because they lost their way, but found a place that suited their derangement.
It is hard to imagine a place, even the legendary jungle of Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, and Burden of Dreams, that more perfectly suits Herzog's derangement. The film's most touching moments involve a taciturn penguin researcher who no longer regularly associates with humanity, but does his best to answer Herzog's questions. Herzog, insistent that he's not making another March of the Penguins, only wants to know about penguin abnormality. Are there gay penguins? Are there crazy penguins? The answers, when we receive them, are simultaneously awe-inspiring and chilling. In Herzog's hand, the penguin is not an adorable figure or even an animal engaged in a crushing battle for survival. A penguin is instead, like anyone Herzog is interested in, a person near the end of their rope, buffeted by nature and unable to maintain normalcy. In Herzog's hands, penguin derangement is more touching than that of any human subject.