Encounters at the End of the World

What do gay penguins, artistic pseudo-intelligent single cell organisms, and the end of human life have in common?  Give up?  They are all topics up for discussion in Werner Herzog‘s latest, brilliant documentary, Encounters at the End of the World.  Nominated for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards (one of the strongest categories this year), Encounters is not only one of the best documentaries of last year, it is one of the best films.

For Encounters, Herzog travelled to Antarctica not to, as he assured the NSF, make another documentary about penguins, but to examine the people who choose to live and work in such isolated, harsh conditions.  He hovers around McMurdo Station, the large base camp which looks like a dank mining town, and ventures out to field sites that are often no more than a couple of tents or sheds.  Here, scientists conduct a variety of experiments, but Herzog is most interested in the under-the-ice diving, videos of which attracted him to this project in the first place.  Along the way, he encounters just as many non-scientists as scientists…after all, someone has to provide mechanical, maintenance, and culinary services.  Most of the people that he interviews have double titles as in Linguist/Computer Expert or Philosopher/Forklift Driver.  These are some truly amazing and brilliant people who while, in a way, escaping from the grid, help us better understand our place in it.

Herzog’s film offers us a glimpse of a beautiful continent, that we humans have managed to tear up, at least in terms of McMurdo Station.  While it is interesting to see how the camp works, the most fascinating aspects of the documentary are his excursions into “the wild.”  Here, he talks with a scientist about the violence of the microscopic worlds that exist in the sea below the ice.  The scientist mentions the existence of horrific parasites and single-celled organisms that would, were we shrunk to their size, decimate us with little effort.  This scientist, in response to Herzog’s questions, suggests that evolution might be a story of us fleeing this world and evolving in response to it.

Though he told the NSF he was not going to make another documentary about penguins, he does film the cute little birds and talks to a biologist about the possibility of gay penguins or insane penguins.  The scientist claims that he has seen neither but that he has seen a prostitute penguin, one that will mate with a male just to take a rock to build her nest.  In one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking scenes in all of last year’s films, Herzog captures a wayward penguin wandering off into the interior of the continent.  Unlike the other penguins who move back and forth between their nesting spots and the ocean to feed and then feed their young, this penguin wanders away from the group.  Oddly enough, if the scientists caught it and tried to point it in the right direction, it would continue on his original path to certain death.  The scientists have been instructed to let it wander.  Although Herzog makes no direct assertion, the scientists’ claims that the end of human life is a certainty…that life on this planet will march on without us…make the lost penguin’s death march a metaphor for the ways in which the human community often insists on taking a similar journey.

While the people who work in Antarctica have some absolutely insane stories to tell about past travels and experiences, Herzog does not portray them as freaks or over exoticize them.  They are normal people who work, quite literally, on the fringe.  One of these workers, a philosopher, references another philosopher who posited that we are the means by which the universe witnesses its own glory.  If that is true, then these forklift drivers, philosophers, scientists, cooks, and mechanics have a front row seat to see the glory of a tiny part of our universe.

Herzog dedicates this film to Roger Ebert, whom he calls a soldier of cinema.  Roger Ebert wrote a letter of praise to Herzog after this dedication which is definitely worth reading.  Ebert’s assertion that to describe Herzog’s work is to simultaneously praise it is most apt for Encounters at the End of the World.

Encounters at the End of the World (99 mins.) is rated G and is available on DVD.