pourquoi? parce que

Encounters at the End of the World ****

with one comment

The documentaries of Werner Herzog are good, but they could be great. I admire his philosophical position and his work – though am often respectfully suspicious of its veracity. He can work almost found footage with tremendous aesthetic and metaphorical flair. But he could invest pictures like Encounters at the End of the World with more unambiguous substance, execute with greater elegance, and offer a more universal or accessible experience.

It seems reasonably well known and self-acknowledged that Herzog often places more truth content in his fictional works than the documentary pieces. He probably stages and creatively reconstructs his encounters with people (come on, were the polar researchers really watching that apocalyptic b-movie with the cameraman in front of the screen?). His distrust of specious philosophical claims is palpable, and his acute awareness of what is wrong with people’s positions leads him to criticize (rather than give precious time to) those who fall foul, and eulogize those who embody the ideal. There are those who find all of this abrasive, such as Peter Geyer, who revealed (in conversation at EIFF 2008) some frustration with Herzog’s liberal disregard for factual accuracy and implicit duplicity. I, for one, find it playful yet maddening by turns.

The director travels with his cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, to explore the landscapes of Antarctica and the dreams of her inhabitants. Some of those at the McMurdo outpost are simply scientists (whose poetic aspirations come into accidental question, thanks to the persistent irreverence of Herzog’s skeptical lens; whose investigative endeavours are, to Herzog, cruel, unlike the violent minutiae of the natural world). Some of them are adventurers (or reified, disembodied raconteurs). All are framed as the explorers who have fallen off the edge of the world, found at its most remote part, the shores of Antarctica.


But praise is reserved for and visually heaped specifically upon those who seem denatured by their encounters – the diver retiring from his submarine cathedral, the zoologist who no longer has the skills or taste for human interaction, the volcanologist incanting over the magma of Erebus. The philosopher whose words seemed spurious in the opening act (perhaps a trick of translation? Like Herzog, I suspect his meaning is profound but its expression succumbs to the noise of a non-native language, losing its elegance) returns at the resolution to make a claim about mankind – the eyes, ears, consciousness of the universe, uniquely placed to reflect on (genuflect to?) its magnificence. This is part two of Herzog’s thesis. Part one is that men die and man is dying out. He pictures the former as a beautiful truth, the latter as unremarkable.

Herzog is not so much duplicitous as inaccessible. He is best taken as a German without a sense of humour – he never ridicules his subject. He occupies an unusual and important space which lies between all perceived divides – playing with and exposing ‘whatever singularity’, interrogating the state of exception. His distaste for people is not universal – he loves them in their humbled, dissociative reverence, as the consciousness of that majesty, the dreamers of the long-view on human insignificance (an unfortunate event which will take out a lot of beauty with it), geological intransigence and organic transcendence. Some men, like the little penguin (who is not funny! I sometimes wish the line between comedy and tragedy were more clearly expressed to a crowd after entertainment), will run off to the mountains, to starve alone, for no good reason, but without insanity. In fact, they are all too rational: like the penguin, like Buridan’s ass, they succumb to the indeterminacy of the good. These are the dreamers who stalk the terrible vistas of geology, swarms of organisms – like aliens, in a world that totally alienates men.


Herzog seems obsessed with the gray space between nihilism and perceived transcendent experience, and those who swim in it. The Gregorian chant in the cloisters under the ice sky, teeming with alien life, but barren in form; the bucket-headed men, vulnerable, fail their survival test; the ravening penguin runs for the hills; the Don stands by the exposed magma that seethes beneath the earth, Kurtz’s snail on the edge of a straight razor. These images were collected and presented excellently, and will hopefully haunt my dreams far into the future. So it’s a shame he hasn’t tightened up this film a little more. Cut out some of his narrative pretense, let the images and actions speak. And focused on the more exceptional visuals.

In an interview, Mark Kermode presented Herzog with a paradox: if the essence of nature consists in “chaos, murder and hostility”, is the beauty his work finds in the natural world ex nihilo? And the reply he spat could not have been more portentous and affected: “I stem the tide.” I feel a kindred spirit.


Encounters at the End of the World, Dir. & Writ. Werner Herzog, Prod. Henry Kaiser, Discovery, USA, 2007


Written by James P. Campbell

08/05/2009 at 16:55

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I agree with many things you have said above about Werner. I reckon he seeks out the weirder of people at McMurdo or are they just more like him and can he relate to them better. The visual side of the film was great. I can’t quite see how he was oscar nominated for it but then it gives me great hope that he was.

    I live in Antarctica and I have plans to make a documentary on wintering in Antarctica. Our base is small and British with 21 people and the winter with no outside contact is 7 months long.

    To keep me enthusiastic about filming I keep a film blog as I go with little short films of the weeks down here. Hopefully I shall be able to put a docu together but from the inside rather than as an outsider. Have a look if you have an interest in life in the cold continent.

    have fun


    14/05/2009 at 00:30

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: