Judge Clark Douglas may not be truthful, but he is frequently ecstatic.
Our review of Encounters At The End Of The World, published November 18th, 2008, is also available.
Go someplace cool.
There is no living filmmaker who fascinates me as much as Werner Herzog. There is no one else like him. Herzog is a cinematic poet, blurring the lines between fact and fiction to create what he calls "ecstatic truth." He is perhaps best known for his feature films (particularly collaborations with Klaus Kinski such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo), but Herzog has devoted a large portion of his career to documentaries. That is assuming that you want to call them documentaries. Herzog refuses to merely "document things." He has a gift for finding unique people and places, and a desperation to offer us new images and ideas.
Herzog's latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, is an ideal example of the filmmaker's fascinating gifts. When Herzog was crafting the hypnotic science-fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder, he employed footage of the ocean underneath layers of Antarctic ice. He was so fascinated by this footage that he determined to go to Antarctica himself to make a film. However, he vowed that it would not be, "yet another film about fluffy penguins." Rather than attempting to capture more images of natural beauty, Herzog decided to put the center of attention on the people living in Antarctica. What drives someone to want to live at the end of the world? Why would a person choose to take residence in such a cold and desolate place?
As you might expect, Herzog manages to find a variety of compelling and eccentric individuals. One of these is a plumber whose hands look particularly unusual. His index finger and middle finger on each hand are precisely the same length. The plumber informs us that this means he is a descendant of Aztec royalty, a thought he takes great pride in. As Herzog interviews the plumber, the man keeps holding his hands up, repeatedly demonstrating his royal trait. Another man is a fan of science fiction films and marvels at how frightening all the teeny-tiny creatures under the water would be if we were shrunk down to their size. At night, he offers his co-workers a screening Them! on his modest Compaq PC. Another woman is fond of traveling as hand luggage. Once she traveled for thousands of miles inside of a sewage pipe in the back of a truck.
Herzog weaves interviews with these strange but likable people in-between moments of serene beauty and Discovery Channel-style fact gathering. There is a scene in which a couple of divers use explosives to create a hole in the ice, and they begin an underwater search for new life forms. For the sake of additional freedom of movement, they do not use any ropes. This forces the divers to find their way back to the hole in the ice on their own. No less than three new species are discovered during the underwater journey. Herzog offers us footage of the expedition, and the result is yet another deeply absorbing trip into a place that is simultaneously beautiful and frightening.
It is ironic that the most memorable moment in the film involves penguins. Though Herzog did not want to make a movie about these cuddly little creatures, he does indeed take time to speak with an introverted penguin expert. Herzog's questions seem to indicate a firm determination not to cover familiar territory: "Are there any gay penguins? Have you ever witnessed any cases of insanity among penguins?" Perhaps not insanity, but something strange is captured nonetheless. A group of penguins are traveling together. At one point, most of them head in one direction to gather food. A couple more head back to the penguin camp. One can't decide which direction to go. He simply stands there, looking lost and alone. Finally, he turns towards the mountains and marches inexorably towards the mountains, where he will inevitably only meet his doom. There is a strange desperation to this scene, and it seems to lead into Herzog's ultimate destination.
Encounters at the End of the World is not only referring to Antarctica. Herzog has apocalyptic matters on his mind, though he deals with these in a quietly philosophical way. Themes of global warming and climate change are briefly discussed at various points throughout the film, and by the final 20 minutes, Herzog has moved into a state of deep reflection. He watches as various odd relics (fake flowers, a frozen sturgeon) are preserved in tombs of ice at the mathematically precise location of the south pole. He ponders what alien races might think of these things if they come to this earth when we are gone. "Will they wonder what we were doing in such a place?" he muses. Here is a film that begins as an exceptionally creative travelogue, and ends by leaving the viewer with an ever-increasing stream of strange and sobering thoughts. It is not a film that attempts to depress the viewer, but there is a sense of elegiac resignation that I found very touching.
The hi-def transfer is quite solid, if not quite the knockout that I was hoping for. Perhaps due to the somewhat rough filming conditions, some of the footage suffers from faint grain. There are a couple of scenes with little flecks and specks, too. Blacks are quite deep, and colors are well-balanced. Audio is mostly excellent, and the score by producer Henry Kaiser is exceptionally rich. His fine original score is nicely complimented by several well-chosen choral pieces that accompany some of the more ethereal passages of the film.
In terms of supplements, we begin with a commentary from Herzog, Kaiser, and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. It's a decent track, but a little below par by Herzog's standards. He's usually terrific when it comes to commentaries, but here is just a little bit less revealing than usual. Still, it's worth a listen. There are three featurettes devoted to additional footage of Antarctica. The best of these is the 35-minute "Under the Ice," which offers more footage from that beautiful dive. This is nicely complimented by a dive locker interview. Some very unusual additional material can also be found in "South Pole Exorcism," which observes an odd ritual. The best of the extras is probably the 67-minute Herzog interview conducted by Jonathan Demme. If the commentary is a little lacking, this conversation more than makes up for it. It's terrific stuff, and Herzog is as strangely compelling as ever.
Encounters at the End of the World is yet another deeply memorable
meditation from Mr. Herzog. For those who worried he had sold out by helming a
studio thriller like Rescue Dawn,
never fear. Herzog is in trademark adventurous form here, and this Blu-ray disc
only makes the experience even richer. A must-see. Not guilty.
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