Encounters at the End of the World (2007)


Encounters at the End of the World
Dir. Werner HerzogPremiered at Telluride September 1, 2007

In 2006, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to filmmaker Werner Herzog to film a documentary on Antarctica. The NSF probably didn’t get what they expected. In Herzog’s own words, “…I would not come up with another film about penguins.”

That’s not to say that Encounters at the End of the World is without penguins– Herzog takes great pleasure subtly mocking a taciturn penguin researcher, and the film is full of haunting imagery of the alien Antarctic landscape, far more than can be said here– but Herzog’s interest in Antarctica is through humans, the witnesses to the glory of the universe.

Apparently, it takes certain kinds of people to go to this remote, inhospitable locale– those who love the Earth and those who don’t like people. Herzog seems most at home with the various geologists who make Antarctica their summer home. Strangely, it is the life sciences who attract the loners, the majority of whom have come to get away from humanity, and believe it to be on the edge of extinction. Ever the unlikely humanist, Herzog treats their indifference to the human race with incredulity if not outright contempt, commiserating at one point with a former linguist who gave up his profession after the environmentally-minded scientific community took no interest in the extinction of human cultures.

Encounters at the End of the World is a beautiful film, but one that will make you want to stay the hell away from Antarctica. Every frame of film fills the viewer with apocalyptic unease, the conviction that human beings are not supposed to be there, and, in Herzog’s eyes, are mostly present as flights of fancy because there is no territory left on Earth to be discovered (he hammers this in by interviewing a so-called “explorer” who wishes to reach the South Pole via pogo stick). I can’t say this isn’t a good film, but I never want to see it again. Though that might just be my claustrophobia talking.

Signs this Was Made in 2007
Herzog’s jab at the penguin craze going on in popular culture, as well as the fact that the “film” is very obviously shot on DV Tape, a staple of television production that is usually altered to look like film, though not here.

Additional Notes
Herzog unexpectedly dedicates Encounters at the End of the World to film critic Roger Ebert, who is probably the most famous film critic in the world and was honored if mildly perplexed by Herzog’s tribute. I don’t get to talk about critics much, but few if anyone wrote more about film over a longer period of time than him. In the age of YouTube, thousands of film lovers have found an outlet to explore their interest and share it with us, but it’s safe to say he and Gene Siskel were the first. I do a lot of research for this project, and I’ve had the great pleasure of reading some of his old movie reviews, which he wrote with great enthusiasm and passion until his death in 2013.

How Did It Do?
Encounters at the End of the World was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, not for 2007 but rather 2008, when it finally entered wide release. The film grossed just $1.2 million worldwide, but got rave reviews (94% on RT), enabling Herzog to continue just as he had.

Next Time: In the Valley of Elah

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