April 22, 2010

Review of Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the WorldEncounters at the End of the World is a documentary film by Werner Herzog completed in 2007. The film studies people and places in Antarctica.


Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger go to Antarctica to meet people who live and work there, and to capture footage of the continent's unique locations. Herzog's voiceover narration explains that his film will not be a typical Antarctica film about "fluffy penguins," but will explore the dreams of the people and the landscape.
Encounters at the End of the WorldThere is a hidden society at the end of the world. One thousand men and women live together under unbelievably close quarters in Antarctica, risking their lives and sanity in search of cutting-edge science.

Now, for the first time, an outsider has been admitted. In his first documentary since GRIZZLY MAN, Werner Herzog, accompanied only by his cameraman, traveled to Antarctica, with rare access to the raw beauty and raw humanity of the ultimate Down Under.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Herzog’s latest meditation on nature, explores this land of Fire, Ice and corrosive Solitude.
The upside

Encounters at the End of the World

By Roger EbertRead the title of "Encounters at the End of the World" carefully, for it has two meanings. As he journeys to the South Pole, which is as far as you can get from everywhere, Werner Herzog also journeys to the prospect of man's oblivion. Far under the eternal ice, he visits a curious tunnel whose walls have been decorated by various mementos, including a frozen fish that is far away from its home waters. What might travelers from another planet think of these souvenirs, he wonders, if they visit long after all other signs of our civilization have vanished?

Herzog has come to live for a while at the McMurdo Research Station, the largest habitation on Antarctica. He was attracted by underwater films taken by his friend Henry Kaiser, which show scientists exploring the ocean floor.
And:Herzog is a romantic wanderer, drawn to the extremes. He makes as many documentaries as fiction films, is prolific in the chronicles of his curiosity and here moseys about McMurdo, chatting with people who have chosen to live here in eternal day or night.And:I make the movie sound like a travelogue or an exhibit of eccentrics, and it is a poem of oddness and beauty. Herzog is like no other filmmaker, and to return to him is to be welcomed into a world vastly larger and more peculiar than the one around us. The underwater photography alone would make a film, but there is so much more.And:Herzog's method makes the movie seem like it is happening by chance, although chance has nothing to do with it. He narrates as if we're watching movies of his last vacation--informal, conversational, engaging. He talks about people he met, sights he saw, thoughts he had. And then a larger picture grows inexorably into view. McMurdo is perched on the frontier of the coming suicide of the planet. Mankind has grown too fast, spent too freely, consumed too much, and the ice cap is melting, and we shall all perish.The downside

Their Own Separate Universe / Encounters at the End of the World

By Ranylt RichildisWerner Herzog looks for examples of human madness everywhere, even on the sparsely populated continent of Antarctica. In fact, what likely drew him to the location of his latest documentary was the promise of eccentric residents eager to mug for his camera.And:You can find a thread of humanity’s individual or collective madness either in the stories he tells or the people he shines his light on. This isn’t mere exploitation; Herzog’s made a career out of proving that madness and alienation are part of the human condition and should be embraced for their meaning, their creativity and, well, for their humanness. Those whom the majority of us consider fringe or unhinged, Herzog argues, are sometimes the most honest of homo sapiens, and they have critical lessons to share.

The lessons many of the personalities in Encounters at the End of the World share with viewers is a popular one: ecosystems are fragile and the human race is doomed. But don’t be fooled. Herzog may dignify his latest doc with climate-change epaulettes, but his real interest is in the people who live at McMurdo and other research stations on the vast ice.
And:While Treadwell [Grizzly Man] was genuinely extreme, at least (which made up for the film’s other lapses), the human subjects in Encounters lack the intensity, or at least the haunting quality, which Herzog relies on to make points about our condition. A few of them might fit the “unconventional” mold, perhaps, but no one seems distressed as a result of the environment, and most are cheerily well-adjusted. Continental isolation and a mortal climate don’t contribute to anomie or alienation, but instead knit people tighter into their community. Barring a few exceptions, Herzog’s subjects aren’t as interesting as he hopes they’ll be (to the point where even Herzog mocks their chattering), and most of their comments are banalities presented as quirk or insight.And:With the help of the linguist and a marine biologist, Herzog makes worn claims about how we fight to save a species of tree or plankton, but ignore the collapse of languages and communities. A link is made between ecological and cultural death—which is a pertinent observation. It’s just too bad that it’s an observation National Geographic has been making in every third issue of their magazine since the 80s. Herzog’s desultory achtung-ing doesn’t affect us as it’s supposed to affect us, simply because what he presents as jarring really isn’t anymore.Another review:

How Many Goodly Creatures Are There on Mr. Herzog’s Planet

Rob's review

Encounters at the End of the World covers the same ground as a National Geographic-style documentary. But Herzog's point of view means that you're seeing things that usually don't make it into these documentaries. Encounters isn't better or worse than the standard documentary, just different.

A lot of the entertainment value comes from Herzog's quirky voiceover and accent. You can feel his acerbic wit and attitude even when he's making "straight" comments. If someone else were narrating the film, it wouldn't be as good.

Herzog does seem to be in love with the underwater footage. Even though it's gorgeous, he shows so much of it in reverential slow motion that you want to speed it up. And the religious music backing these scenes is so loud and heavy-handed that I had to reduce the volume three-quarters.

One gets the sense that Herzog saw the underwater footage first, then figured out how to build an Antarctica movie around it. "We'll find people and places to contrast with this underwater beauty, make a statement about man vs. nature, and voilá. The NSF will finance my film."

You can see this in the trailer below. The underwater scenes make up maybe 20% of the movie but they're almost 50% of the trailer. It's clear they're the "tail that wags the dog."

The quality of the interviews is mixed, to say the least. Sometimes Herzog mutes the sound and summarizes what a person is saying, which suggests the person's words aren't that notable. This is an effective technique--one more documentary makers should use. <g>

All in all, I'd say Encounters at the End of the World is about as good as any good nature documentary. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

For more on the subject, see Natives in Encounters at the End of the World and Native Documentaries and News.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Everyone knows I like critical reviews. Yours was the harshest one I found. ;-)

I wouldn't have been so negative, but I haven't watched enough Herzog films to know if he's repeating himself. In any case, I obviously appreciated your comments.