Sunday, 15 April 2012

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary finds him in Antarctica where he meets the people who call the frozen continent their home. Herzog announces at the start that this will not be another film about fluffy penguins but will explore the dreams of the people working in this landscape. The entire film crew consisted of Herzog and Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger who spent seven weeks on the continent, interviewing the people who live and work there.

Shortly after arriving, Herzog is in full on grumpy mode as he is stuck in the largest settlement on the continent, McMurdo Island. He is shocked to discover that it looks like a dirty construction site, is criss-crossed by JCB diggers and has a bowling alley and an aerobic studio. Herzog makes it clear that he wants to escape the confines of the settlement as soon as possible. 

Herzog meets many different people in his seven weeks on the continent. Some people, like a geologist Herzog meets sound like poets when describing Ice Burgs the size of countries while others are particularly annoying. A survival instructor being the most irritable person Herzog encounters. We meet an array of weird and wonderful characters from an ex banker turned bus driver to a woman with a beard and another woman who travelled through South America in a sewer pipe on the back of a lorry. Their stories and experiences are rife with philosophy and wonder.

"Through our eyes the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witness to which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence."

Herzog’s ability to put into words what he sees is unrivalled and he sounds like a poet when he speaks. His accent along with the way he conveys himself are a joy to listen to. Herzog takes us into the mind of the people he meets and tries to understand why they are here, what bought them here and how they have adapted to their environment. Herzog also tires to get inside the mind of a suicidal penguin in a very funny but odd moving encounter.

Towards the end of the film, Herzog focuses on the future of Antarctica and the future of us as a species; hypothesising that when we are gone a race of alien archaeologists will study our ruined cities and try to understand why we were in the Antarctic. While there they will uncover the only completely intact human settlement, preserved in the ice. It is a unique and vivid Herzogian vision.

As with all Herzog documentaries, I felt that watching it on Blu-Ray on a large TV was sufficient. Herzog captures great beauty in Antarctica but is also unafraid of filming the uglier sides. To me, his documentary makes Antarctica feel a bit like Prague. It is incredibly beautiful but kind of spoiled by Americans. The film features some wonderfully unique and interesting people and I'd have been more than happy to watch at least another half an hour. This is a charming documentary which goes further than the traditional wildlife documentaries you will have seen before and is a joy to watch.    


For more Werner Herzog films check out my reviews of Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss and Aguirre Wrath of God

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