Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog has made a career documenting extreme landscapes and courting danger. Encounters at the End of the World chronicles his trip to Antarctica, and, perhaps because the director is approaching old-master status, skews toward the observational. Taking a military plane out of New Zealand, Herzog ponders his fellow travelers, wondering who they are and what they dream. As discovered (or scripted) in the film, the U.S. settlement at McMurdo Sound is populated by an assortment of geeks, vagabonds, and loners. Herzog soon escapes to a research camp, where he’s delighted to find a physicist engaged in a spiritual quest, searching for almost undetectable subatomic particles in a parallel universe. Herzog takes care to inoculate himself against New Age sentimentality—making many mocking references to “whale huggers”—and avoids feel-good anthropomorphism. Although not specifically mentioned, his bête noire is March of the Penguins. When he does visit penguin land, Herzog asks a painfully diffident scientist: “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins? Could they just go crazy because they’ve had enough of their colony?” Before the scientist can answer, the filmmaker cuts to a single bird waddling away from its colleagues toward the interior mountains and, as Herzog notes, certain death. Herzog may loathe the projection of human attributes onto the animal kingdom, but he’s managed to find an antihero: There’s no mistaking his point that the doomed, irrational creature is us.
June 27-July 3, 2008

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