Perilous terrain, it seems, is Werner Herzog’s comfort zone. In Encounters at the End of the World Herzog takes a crew of diehards into the evermore in search of something distant and untouched. Braving arctic elements and inner struggles, the film summits humanity’s vast dilemmas all the while gazing at the dynamic beast that Nature truly is. Lauded by critics for some time now, Herzog’s enjoyed a recent surge in popularity, especially after remaking the tear-jerking doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly into a narrative backed by studio assets. For this, the hipster and film school base will show up in droves, as will congregations of fans who know a good thing when they see it.
The story’s hub is a manmade town called McMurdo Station that functions much like its mainland counterparts: Edifices sprawled out, electricity, plumbing, the works. Underneath the ceilings and out of the shiver, everything reflects a craving for normalcy, but that does little to tickle Herzog’s famished senses. He loathes this place and its too-much-in-the-face civilization with its contained atmosphere, yoga classes and ATM machines and simply wants to get off the reservation. Fast. As Herzog narrates in his distinct tongue with punchy and spitfire grill inflections, the audience can sense this will be a beautiful disaster.
Lift off from base camp and we see the stuff that makes this place unconquered by mammal or otherwise. Treacherous cliffs and volcanoes serve as cubicles for some of the bravest wayward Ph.Ds who are somehow determined to achieve small victories in this field, so far off-campus from the rest of academia.
Incredible achievements with this work occur in the most unlikely of places. A journeyman plumber whose hands trace back to the Aztecs talks about his ancestors and sort of awkwardly stands clueless as Herzog keeps rolling. The man tries to show his unique hands again in silence then without another thought gets back to his machinist duties and fires-up the torch. Not a cut during the entire sequence. There’s a tough guy engineer who goes mute and wells-up when probed about escaping Communist Europe. Herzog holds a tight shot but answers for him and segues into a chat about the contents in his survival knapsack. He pokes dry fun at the biologists who are high-fiving when they discover two species from mundane DNA strains on a flickering computer screen. Herzog wryly asks if this is a breakthrough to a deafening silent beat. When he interfaces with a penguin researcher who rarely gives interviews, Herzog causes the recluse to turn pink by asking if penguins can be gay or ever go insane. And when the cameras are trailing a flock of penguins Herzog holds on a couple of strays that head straight for the hills and certain death. Underwater, the divers are elevated to priests before mass or spaceman scaling the moon.
The bold decision to score the film with orchestras and seal calls emphasizes humanity’s own primordial sounds and leavens the emotional register of the film. You learn a great deal about Werner Herzog. He comes to the project with a magnanimous plan that he knows will shake things up. He exploits that which defies his, and this leaves him very vulnerable. For this alone one could call him unafraid. If it’s moving or evocative he’ll put it out there. Further, the film is a testament to the dedication of the people who risk their lives for these magical spaces and creatures that have so long been tucked away. This unseen domain is revealed here and given a chance at stardom. Herzog’s heart widens as do the hearts of the believers who go before his lens, entrusting completely his steady hand. What’s left is pure poetry.
Distributor: Discovery Films/THINKFilm/Image Entertainment
Director: Werner Herzog
Producers: Henry Kaiser
Running time: 99 min.
Release date: June 11 Ltd.