We have come to take the time/space travel abilities of film for granted.
In the new documentary Encounters at the End of the World, we can sit down in a dark room and, through two senses—sight and hearing—be transported on a virtual tour of Antarctica with the philosophical filmmaker Werner Herzog as our guide. Not just to Antarctica, but to its furthest reaches, the edge of an active volcano, the waters populated by alien beings below a roof of ice, the depths of a crystalline cave whose shimmering nodes makes us feel as if we're descending into an enormous geode.
But, most spectacularly, Encounters takes us to edges, beneath the surfaces and into the depths of the individuals who have chosen to live in a land that, in the words of one Russian tractor driver interviewed in the film, "works almost as a natural selection for people that have this intention to jump off the margin of the map." The Russian concludes, "We all meet here where the lines of the map converge."
If any filmmaker is going to repel down a line of longitude to its frayed end, it is Herzog. (And if any filmmaker can evoke, through his presence alone, the latent lyricism of his interviewees, it is Herzog, too.)
Long fascinated with the extremes of human behavior, spirit and isolation, Herzog seemed fated, as if a pachinko ball, to eventually tumble down and lodge himself in the Antarctic community of McMurdo Station, population 1,100. If the endlessly white Antarctic expanse is the most geographically isolated place on earth, think of the isolation that Herzog studied in Land of Silence and Darkness, his brilliant 1971 documentary about those who are both deaf and blind.
And the scientists that Herzog finds living in a frozen hell in order to gain knowledge about neutrinos, seals or icebergs—scientists who put their ears to the ice for the bleeps, blips and booms of whales, as if the round of the southern cap was a pregnant belly—are exceptionally committed. Think of the obsessive drive of the protagonist in Herzog's Amazonian drama, Fitzcarraldo, who sought to haul a three-story ship over a mountain.
But it isn't actually Herzog's own work that comes immediately to mind when thinking about Encounters. Errol Morris' 1997 documentary, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which layered interviews of a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robotics specialist and a mole-rat expert, is its closest cousin. Both make use of interviews with visionary characters to gesture toward the meaning of human existence, and its possible cessation. Yes, as Encounters progresses, a double entendre emerges from its title: It's not just about the end of the world as in its furthest frontier, but also about the end of the world as in the end of the world as we know it, that is, with us on it.
Herzog, who narrates Encounters in his measured, German-inflected English, begins almost casually, by recounting that he was drawn to McMurdo by an underwater photographer friend of his. He's just "poking around," as it were. It takes some time to realize that what seems like a whimsical travelogue is in fact something much more. It is cliché, at this point, to refer to Herzog's work as "poetic." But then that ultimate and most clichéd cliché becomes necessary: It's cliché because it's true.
And so it is.
Encounters at the End of the World
Directed by Werner Herzog
With Werner Herzog and Ryan Andrew Evans
CCA. 99 min., G