Forget Indiana Jones — how about the career of Werner Herzog as a continuous, epic serial: “Werner Herzog and the Mountain-Defying Steamboat” (Fitzcarraldo), “Werner Herzog and the Burning Oil Fields of Kuwait” (Lessons of Darkness), “Werner Herzog and the Ursine Manchild” (Grizzly Man). Now, with Encounters at the End of the World, we have something like “Werner Herzog Conquers Antarctica,” a testament to the self-mythologizing German daredevil’s singular powers as a poetic visualist and fantastical storyteller that’s at once par for the course and absolutely extraordinary.
Encounters marks the follow-up to Herzog’s first Hollywood production, Rescue Dawn, and it’ll be interesting to see whether or not this new film, co-produced by the film branch of the Discovery Channel, builds on the ever-increasing mainstream audience Herzog’s attracted since 2005’s breakout hit Grizzly Man. For some, that audience is conclusive evidence of Herzog’s gimmicky appeal to those easily taken in by a distracting larger-than-life persona (latest feat: claiming a bullet in the gut felt “exhilarating”); for others, it’s evidence of a successful balancing act between intrepid independence and unabashed crossover aspirations. I’ll take the easy way out and stand somewhere in the middle. Too frequently Herzog overshadows subjects by narcissistically filtering the world through his enormous ego, but criticizing that is like criticizing Hemingway’s take-on-all-comers bluster. Like it or not, it’s where his unique strength lies.
In that sense, Encounters fulfills well-known Herzogian staples: formidable, dreamlike landscapes accompanied by spine-tingling choral hymns; memorable characters braving extreme elements in pursuit of adventure, knowledge and the limits of their own wills; voice-over meditations in Herzog’s inimitable Bavarian accent on the relationship of man and nature (imagine anyone else intoning “We flew into the unknown, a seemingly endless void” and producing the same effect — impossible). Herzog explicitly claims Encounters to be the complex answer to feel-good twaddle like March of the Penguins, and he makes good by unromantically depicting banal, over-civilized McMurdo Station, America’s Antarctic command on the shore of Ross Island, where newcomers must learn the essentials of treacherous survival. Its “professional dreamer” inhabitants, though, are closer to his heart: a journeyman plumber whose ancestry dates back to Aztec royal families (the shape of his hands are confirmed proof), a British volcanologist whose tweed outfits pay tribute to turn-of-the-century Antarctic adventurers; a computer expert whose harrowing experiences across Africa would themselves fill a feature-length documentary.
The proud Antarctic community’s scientific and philosophic observations are alternated with visual interludes showcasing biological expeditions and experiments in icy, volcanic, cavernous and underwater terrains. Naysayers be damned, this is just beautiful stuff. The best moments involve otherworldly seal sounds that can be heard through the seas, and divers — “like priests preparing for mass” — getting trapped under gargantuan ice floes to swim among coral and spider-like mollusks, and to discover new species of single organisms. But rather than simply singing the praises of nature’s strangest spectacles, Encounters works as a requiem for the earth’s vanishing mysteries, as well as the earth itself. Herzog evokes a humbling sense of humans’ inevitable and at least partly self-inflicted extinction, caused by the environmental changes so threatening Antarctica — a macrocosmic echo of the last continent’s colonization as “the end of adventure,” a symbol of mystery and wonder “not left in peace in [its] dignity.” With Encounters, only Herzog comes close to cinematically restoring it.