When offered funding by the National Science Foundation to make a documentary in Antarctica, filmmaker Werner Herzog agreed but warned he wouldn't be making a film about "fluffy penguins." To anyone that knows Herzog's work, this dig at Luc Jacquet's March of the Penguins and his further disparaging remarks about "whale-huggers" should come as no surprise. As evidenced by his oeuvre spanning five decades and more than 60 feature-films, shorts, and television programs, Herzog has little interest in documenting wild animals and untrammeled environments for nature lovers.
The natural world does frequently figure prominently in Herzog's films, but typically it is as challenge or backdrop to the human drama. For example, in making La Soufriere (1978) which is ostensibly about one of the most dramatic of natural conditions, an active volcano, Herzog preferred to foreground the motivation of himself, his crew, and the handful of islanders who refused to evacuate despite the grave danger of an imminent eruption. Even in Herzog's films filled with landscapes as vast and inhospitable as the Sahara desert (Fata Morgana) or the post-apocalyptic expanses of Kuwaiti oil wells on fire (Lessons of Darkness) his focus is on the altered environment as human artifact.
Herzog's real interest is extraordinary people. Though some of his subjects have been elite athletes (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner), mountaineers (The Dark Glow of the Mountains), prisoners of war (Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn), victims of torture or catastrophe (Echoes from a Sombre Empire and Wings of Hope) and humanitarians (The Flying Doctors of East Africa and Land of Silence and Darkness), nearly all are also deeply eccentric. Herzog is keenly fascinated by eccentrics of all stripes from mystics and charismatic preachers (Bells from the Deep, God's Angry Man and Huie's Sermon), to obsessed Europeans far from home (Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God), to vagabond dreamers (Grizzly Man).
Accompanied only by cinematographer and longtime collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog travelled to the American Arctic research center, McMurdo Station, 2200 miles due south from New Zealand. McMurdo Station is the summertime duty-station to 1100 researchers and support staff, many of whom share a common wanderlust. No stranger to wanderlust himself, Herzog's anticipation is palpable during the long flight aboard the belly of a government cargo aircraft when he ponders in voiceover "Who were the people I was going to meet in Antarctica at the end of the world? What were their dreams?"
Encounters at the End of the World is an apt title. The film consists of numerous discrete interviews with the "professional dreamers" Herzog met during his visit to McMurdo. There's the ex-banker from Colorado, chased by machete-wielding Mayans, who's now a bus driver; a Russian philosopher/forklift operator; a linguist who's come to the only continent on earth devoid of native human languages; a plumber who believes his unusual fingers prove he's descended from Aztec kings; a researcher who's traveled from London to Nairobi in the back of a garbage truck, with an aptitude for contorting herself into a carry-on bag; a filmmaker who operates the station's soft-serve ice cream machine; a Czech former political refugee who always has a survivalist pack at the ready; and a variety of others who've gravitated to the remote science outpost.
Despite the fascinating inhabitants, McMurdo Station is a dreary place with a mining-camp-meets-Motel-6 aesthetic, so Herzog is pleased to head out to the isolated research posts as well. It's here that despite his vow not to make a nature documentary, some nature does come through, but in decidedly Herzogian ways. For example, after his inquiry of a stoic zoologist into the mental health of penguins reveals that sometimes a solitary bird will leave the protection of the nesting grounds to head deep into the interior continent to it's certain doom, Herzog follows one such penguin as it waddles and belly-slides its way toward its fate.
In his "Minnesota Declaration" given on April 30, 1999, Herzog railed against Cinema Verité as "a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants." For him, deeper truths are to be found in "ecstatic truth" which is "mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization." Accordingly, Herzog feels freer than most documentarians to shape his material; often going so far as to stage his subjects' actions, and to put words in their mouths. The extent to which he does this in Encounters at the End of the World isn't clear, but some monologues and images are uncannily similar to prior statements from Herzog and images from his films. For example, a group of researchers lying on a frozen bay with their ears pressed to the ice to hear seal songs in the waters below is manifestly lifted his 1986 documentary Bells from the Deep in which Russian pilgrims peer through the ice of a frozen lake looking for a city of the Angels below (which itself was likely staged by Herzog); while a monologue from microbiologist and sci-fi fan Samuel Bowser describing microscopic underwater life as so horrific as to spur our primordial ancestors to evolve onto dry land, is uncannily reminiscent of another point from Herzog's 1999 Minnesota Declaration: "Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species - including man - crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue." For viewers who believe that documentaries should be as objectively truthful as possible, this search for the deeper ecstatic truths may be disconcerting, but most of these fabrications will likely go unnoticed by anyone but hardcore fans of Herzog's prior films.
Encounters at the End of the World, like Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn before it, is one of Herzog's most accessible films. Perhaps to satisfy the commercial desires of the Discovery Channel which co-funded and distributed this film or perhaps because he's mellowing with age, or perhaps just because the footage is so achingly beautiful, Herzog does include extended footage shot below the ice by research-diver/film-producer Henry Kaiser of the otherworldly flora, fauna and ice stalactite of the Ross Sea, despite the fact that it's fundamentally the kind of nature documentary material that he generally abhors.
Optional subtitles are provided in English and Spanish.
Also provided are additional materials filmed but not included in Encounters at the End of the World, presented in 1080i with 2.0 audio: Under the Ice consists of 36 minutes of additional underwater material shot and scored by Henry Kaiser. Over the Ice is ten minutes of additional helicopter footage accompanied by a Russian choir piece; eighteen minutes of discussion about the more arcane aspects of Antarctic diving between Herzog and research divers Rob Robbins and Henry Kaiser; three-and-a-half minutes of seal footage; and a twelve-minute short made by Henry Kaiser during a prior posting to McMurdo Station under an arts grant. Finally, in addition to the theatrical trailer, there's a 67-minute interview with Herzog conducted by filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Jimmy Carter Man from Plains) at the Museum of Moving Images which fans of Herzog will find to be exceptional.