Encounters at the End of the World
Having lived most of my life on the Canadian prairies, I have often wondered why anyone with enough money for a plane ticket would ever decide to travel to Antarctica. For me, thoughts of exploring the world always feature locales with palm trees and sunny beaches. So what makes some people chose a continent perpetually covered in ice and snow?
Apparently, I’m not the only one who has ever contemplated this question. So has filmmaker Werner Herzog. But his query is a little different than mine. Uninterested in the possible appeal of sub zero temperatures, instead of asking why, he asks “who?”
Traveling to the southern most end of the world, with only cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger in tow, the prolific director turns his attention, microphone and camera lens on the human beings populating this frozen piece of the globe. His interviewees include bus drivers, heavy machine operators, plumbers, survival trainers and, of course, research scientists. And what does he find these 1000 or so red-parka wearing persons have in common? Well, a lot of these self-described “dreamers” have substantial education, deep philosophical perspectives and a strong desire to go where few have gone before.
Visiting various outposts, he introduces viewers to the residents of McMurdo’s Research Station (modern enough to have a yoga class and an ATM machine), the primitive hut of scientists investigating the nutritional properties of seal milk, the augured holes of deep-sea divers looking for single-cellular life on the ocean floor, and the dwellings perched on the side of a volcanic mountain bubbling with molten lava. As these regulars explain their purpose for being in this remote land and recount their unusual life stories, it is hard not to compare some of them with the rogue penguins we also meet during the film. (These lost souls leave the nesting grounds, but rather than following the crowd to the life-sustaining ocean waters, they head off to parts of the continent uninhabited by any other of their species.)
If you are expecting grand vistas of pristine wilderness, tales of penguins and the plight of seals, you won’t be entirely disappointed. Zeitlinger does capture some spectacular shots of underwater creatures living in worlds trapped below ceilings of ice, explorations though snow caves, vast expanses of icebergs and even a few obligatory pictures of the famous aquatic mammals and flightless birds. These sequences are all accompanied by a highbrow musical score, and are very reminiscent of other nature documentaries you may have seen. There is even some archival footage of early explores, and the various professionals have an opportunity to remind viewers of environmental issues and global warming.
But these familiar images and topics are just interesting asides, juxtaposed in a tongue-in-cheek way with his observations of the human animals scratching out a place in the forbidding land.
Some of these have a mocking tone, like when he tries to carry on a conversation with the research scientist who has spent the last twenty years silently observing penguins, or attempts to get a physicist to explain the elusive nature of a neutrino. Others seem a bit sarcastic, such as a community full of nature lovers living in what looks like a dirty little mining town, or the need of mankind to leave their mark on the pole (“graffiti” comes in a multitude of forms, from dead sturgeons to popcorn wreaths). Occasionally he is almost reverent, especially when he compares scuba divers to priests preparing for mass before entering into their underwater cathedrals of ice.
Yet whatever his opinions (or tendencies to meander) may be, this one thing is sure: Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World presents a picture of Antarctica unlike any you have seen before.