Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, indeed stands at the edge of the universe – for all that us silly humans can comprehend – and just regards. Herzog, among the most inquisitive of filmmakers (or frankly, the most inquisitive of humans), is per usual chasing his favorite theme … mankind’s pursuit of the edge of human existence. In the modern classic Grizzly Man, Herzog personifies the chase in the case of Timothy Treadwell, who sought meaning in bears until he was eaten by one. Here, nobody gets eaten … but instead what we get is the portrait of a community and an experience in McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where Herzog takes up residence for some time. People apparently have come down there from all sorts of backgrounds to basically almost forget their lives. It really is a new beginning of sorts – or certainly the epitome of “getting away from it all”. There are a lot of themes that the movie touches – environmentalism, human curiosity – the simple biospehere itself – but the movie is deft at never insisting on a theme. In the early going, we see how they train for whiteouts – the training exercise is brilliantly shot. We see the rope that holds the team together, the instructor’s guidance, the paint buckets used as “simulators” with their silly faces painted on the outside. We see how easy it is to wander off course when you cannot see anything. (indeed, the image is utterly poetic – so much so that Herzog could have easily staged it … ecstatic truth seeker that he is).
Herzog’s camera is curious, but his presentation is casual. He introduces us to people he meets – such as the woman who wins the station talent competition in a most unorthodox way. He talks about the beautiful seal songs – and they are haunting – and how the scientists get them. This leads to another awesome shot of the researchers putting theirs ears down to ice … are they hearing the songs at that minute? It hardly matters – the essence is conveyed. Indeed the ever presence of such an infinite world lying under ice that the entire populace has access to is awe-inspiring … and in Herzog’s way, a more perfect embodiment of mankind’s edge than just about anything. We have visible evidence of the void, and people exploring it, “professional dreamers” one of the researchers says. One of the ways, the void is examined is by scuba going underneath the ice. However, this requires cutting a hole – and since a tether would restrict exploration – the diver has to cut the hole and count on his ability to find it on the way back up. It is frightening – and awesome.
Of course – this movie came out in 2007, around the time of March of the Penguins, which Herzog pokes fun at several times, but indeed yes, there is a scene with a penguin. Those who have heard of the film know this scene as a penguin gets lost and starts heading towards mountains on the horizon well off in the distance. The penguin has been programmed somehow to just start waddling, and apparently if you picked him up and set him back on course to his home, he’d turn back and go to the mountains anyway. Just waddling towards a vast space, with conviction that he is getting there – almost sure to not get there. There is something there, but it doesn’t stop us from waddling.