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By Bryan Newbury
November 25, 2008

Which came first, the egg or the hen phobia? This question seems at the root of Werner Herzog’s new documentary as well as his last one. While engaging in his “latest meditation on nature,” it is hard not to wonder just what Mr. Herzog has against the subject. 

Encounters At the End of the World is principally a film about people. Set in Antarctica, where the true significance of man is on brutal display, it guides us in and around the natural (and, at times, unnatural) world of the continent that fascinates, and endeavors to shine a light on what the film presumes is its most enchanting aspect: the men and women who choose to work there. Noted as much for his appreciation of opera as his irrational fear of all things altricial, it should be no surprise that the conflict between the central supposition and the footage and sound, which belie it, treads a precarious balance between symphonic and cacophonous.  

Beginning with the more endearing aspects, the footage is stunning. Whether in the miniature killing fields existing in the sea below the ice, in the baffling songs of the Waddell seals – Radiohead must sleep better knowing that a seal can’t file an infringement suit – or simply the sheer scope of the ice shelves, there is scarcely a moment where the strange setting isn’t compelling to the point of consuming. It appears obvious why Encounters has earned its far-flung accolades. The problem occurs when the viewer emerges from the audiovisual ayahuasca and lands in Herzog’s solipsistic universe.  

He can’t help himself. The jarring dissonance achieved by an aside from the narrator rivals the most bombastic flourishes in Tannhäuser. In a few interviews, we are treated to shortening of a long story. Apparently the most interesting part of Antarctica can be a bit of a gasser. Werner the Wise, after summarizing one resident’s complicated story, manages to strike a tone that confounds. Shortly after (rightfully) rendering judgment on a “stupid academic trend” a thought occurs to him. It would only occur to him, actually. “In our efforts to preserve endangered species,” he begins, “we seem to overlook something equally important. To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.” Never mind that the threat of mass extinctions is tangible throughout the film. Never mind that there is quite a distinction between extinction of an entire species and the presumed loss of the Winnebago Whitman. Forget, even, that ecological activism isn’t the most direct route to social acceptability. All we need ask in this moment is “what in ruddy frozen hell are you babbling about?”  

This is far from the only occasion where Herzog stretches a soliloquy to tell a point that hasn’t been shown. Returning to his inexplicable hatred for the animal kingdom, we see this odd proclivity acted out against Dr. David Ainley, a “taciturn man, who in his solitude, was not much into conversation with humans anymore.” As of the time of this review, there is little to suggest that Ainley has reconsidered. 

Herzog didn’t go down to Antarctica to do a penguin picture. He points this out early on. Presumably after contemplating the fact that everyone on the planet save him loves penguins, he does his own Herzogian bit on the adorable creatures. His questions, he reminds us, are harder to answer. Those questions, naturally, are about whether male penguins have a penchant for buggering each other, and whether penguins that deviate from the colony in travel or attitude are “deranged.” Can a penguin, that is, go batshit crazy? Does anyone give a cup of guano? The good German finds his deranged penguin after some investigation… or, at least what he determines to be a stark raving mad lunatic penguin, who, rather than going to sea to feed, turns back towards the mountains. There is a perceptible glee in the voice that assures us this flightless Fitzgerald is going on to certain death. Surely some share Herzog’s apparent disdain for bears evidenced in Grizzly Man; but, seriously, penguins? Yes, Dr. Ainley, you aren’t missing much. 

Let it be said that Herzog has accomplished what he was out to do. He has made an aurally and visually arresting anti-nature film. In it, we witness how Herzog’s Cartesian cant is becoming thematically barren through the research of men like Peter Gorham. In a fitting coda, the film documents the neutrino detection project. Dr. Gorham explains the baffling particles that suggest a cosmic oneness that subatomic physics might yet give voice to. What this portends for the philosophical outlook that begs a quote or two from the preface of “The Double Axe” is a shift in consciousness away from the infantile human ego. To the chagrin of Herzog and those like him, the universe does not revolve around us and likely would not mourn us. And the penguins will have a laugh at our collective funeral.


Encounters At the End of the World

A Werner Herzog film

Color, 101 Minutes

Michael on July 8th, 2010 at 10:35 am 

I watched “Encounters” on DVD last night, and was so disturbed by the tone of Herzog’s commentary and the way it was bemusedly accepted and/or praised by most critics, that I went searching for an intelligent review that addressed what to me were obvious lapses of reason and even sanity. Thank goodness I found one. And thank you.

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