Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary film by Werner Herzog, recounts his experiences during his visit to Antarctica. But since Herzog is one of the greatest of documentary filmmakers, one expects that this film will not just be a travelogue or an academic description of the earth’s southernmost continent (although there is some of that). In fact knowing Herzog, we expect this film to be something of a meditation on man, civilization, and the world – and we are not disappointed.
The two-man film crew, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and Herzog on sound, had only the short Antarctic summer to shoot the film, and they pretty much had to shoot and record on the spot whatever they found interesting. From this, and from the film’s title, you might expect that the film would come across as simply an ad hoc stream of occurrences. But Herzog is always uniquely able to express his sometimes grim, existentialist view of humanity, whether his production is a fiction film or a documentary. He is fascinated with people who live at the extreme edges of human existence and who are exploring or experiencing what it is like to step beyond the boundaries of our comfortable civilized world.
To me, Herzog is a frustrated Romantic – he is disturbed not only by the unending display of human depravity but by the inconsequential and ineffective achievements of human progress in the face of brute Nature. He doesn’t relish, as perhaps some people ghoulishly do, the macabre hopelessness of the human condition, so he is always seeking out those people, like himself, who are looking for something more. At the beginning of this film, he remarks that he went to Antarctica, not to shoot “fluffy penguins” but to learn something about man: some animals enslave other species to help procure food (he gives an example from the insect world), while man domesticated the horse more for reasons of adventure. What propels man to do this? This kind of reflective question would not normally make a visit to Antarctica spring immediately to mind, but Herzog is different. He is curious to learn about the people who would go to that continent and what it is that they seek.
Herzog does manage to fashion a story around his encounters, and in their various guises they serve to shed more light on his abiding themes. There are very roughly six sections to the film:
- Arrival and Introduction. Herzog arrives in the summer, when the sun never sets, at McMurdo Research Station, the largest settlement on Antarctica (although most of the people there are not permanent and have other occupations elsewhere). Expecting to see one of the last pristine places on earth, he is put off the cluttered squalor and detritus of building construction and human habitation. During this section he gives a general overview of some of the general facts of Antarctica and what it is like for newcomers to try and operate there. At one of the canteens, a young worker points out that all of the residents crave Frosty Boy ice-cream cones, which Herzog presumably finds bizarre for a frozen place like Antarctica. But Herzog is probably not familiar with this Australian junk-food delicacy, as I am. I have always had a taste for Frosty Boys since my first sampling.
- Strange People. A number of people are interviewed, mostly scientists, but sometimes maintenance personnel. Irrespective of their education, they are all adventurers of some sort. There is one women scientist who has had an astonishing number of bizarre and dangerous experiences while hitchhiking all over the glove. One hundred years after Ernest Schakleton almost made it to the South Pole, these people are trying to reach something else. With everything on earth already “discovered” for a century, there is nowhere else to explore physically. And one is inevitably led to reflect on the limits of our planet once one has come to the very end of it: the “end of the earth”. All the scientists are acutely aware of the effects of global warming and how it is massively reducing the Ross ice shelf, so it is perhaps not surprising that most of them are pessimistic about the prospects of man’s surviving on this planet for much longer. At night some of them like to watch old doomsday movies from the 1950s and 60s. They see themselves as being at the end of our world in both space and time.
- Undersea Photography. The film shows some of the underwater photography of musician Henry Kaiser and includes discussions with biologists Samuel Bowser and Jan Pawlowski. This section presents a dark, eerie, and claustrophobic scene of divers filming life beneath the ice shelf, showing the brutal world of strange sea animals that are endlessly seizing and devouring each other.
- The Penguins. Herzog does finally show some penguins, but his interest is focused on those rare penguins which apparently lose their bearings and determinedly charge off away from the sea, in the direction of the frozen mountains. The resident scientists seem only bemused by these stubborn acts of self-destruction, and they do nothing to intervene and turn the wayward penguins back in the right direction. Such a level of fatalism on their part serves as something of a metaphor for the entire film. Mankind is stubbornly charging off to its own self-destruction, and the scientists seem to accept their powerlessness and the inevitable fate that awaits us. Later, in fact, there is a shot of a deep tunnel that has been constructed, at the bottom of which is place a number of artifacts and mementos. These items are being left there so that future visitors to Earth may learn something about the species that eventually went on to destroy itself.
- Vulcanology. Next the film shows some scientists investigating a real, active volcano, the only one in the world currently accessible-for-study. Herzog, of course, has a fascination with the brute power and destructiveness of volcanoes and how men react to them, dating back at least to his La Soufrière (1977).
- Neutrinos. This last section interviews a physicist preparing for the launch of an enormous helium balloon that will be used to detect neutrinos, the nearly scientifically invisible elementary particle. The balloon needs to be launched over Antarctica, because everywhere else there is too much particle and electronic noise from human activities. The presentation here is more subtle, but it displays the kind of self-absorption of elementary particle physicists who insistently think that the irresponsibly wasteful Large Hadron Collider will provide them with a “theory of everything”. This is the prime academic example of the mad, self-defeating quest for reductionism, in contrast with the holistic, "relational" view that is actually needed today. It’s another instance of educated people charging off according to the misguided readings of their own compasses – like the errant penguin.