*Encounters at the End of the World (G)
Kimball's Twin Peak
Early in Encounters at the End of the World, director Werner Herzog admits his surprise at being part of the project. Flying to the Antarctic in 2006, he recalls warning financiers that "I would not make another film about penguins. My questions about nature ... were different."
If you've watched Herzog's previous documentaries, that'll come as no surprise. Herzog makes his perceptions an overt part of his films; his brilliant 2005 documentary Grizzly Man frequently found Herzog alternately admiring his subject, self-styled grizzly bear "protector" Timothy Treadwell, and questioning Treadwell's sanity. There may be a school of documentary filmmaking that posits the director as a detached observer, but at that school Herzog would end up in the principal's office.
Encounters finds Herzog wondering about dreamers, and humanity cut loose from the comforts of civilization. He captures portraits of the individuals who, in the words of one forklift driver-cum-philosopher, "want to jump off the end of the world." Many are scientists, like physicist Peter Gorham, who is fascinated with the strange world of neutrinos (tiny, fundamental particles), and biologist Sam Bowser, who combines an enthusiasm for odd undersea critters with a love of 1950s sci-fi movies.
Others are support personnel, including a plumber who believes he is a descendent of Mayan royalty, and a former Colorado banker now driving a transport bus. They're all misfits of some sort, and Herzog, without condescension, allows them to tell their stories with patience.
He's also supremely skilled at providing as many compelling images as intriguing characters. Undersea photographer Henry Kaiser explores strange fauna skittering sea stars, pulsating jellies beneath the Ross Sea ice. We plunge into ice catacombs, the crystal blue walls dripping with frozen stalactites. We observe a team of seal researchers lying on the frozen ocean, listening to the calls of the animals below. And, in one wonderfully absurd moment, Herzog follows a survival course with participants roped together, wearing buckets over their heads to simulate white-out conditions.
But as keen as Herzog's eye is behind the camera, his voice is what really gives Encounters its pop. Upon arriving at MacMurdo station, he likens its industrial bustle to that of an "ugly mining town." After listening to former linguist William Jirsa describe events that drove him to work there, Herzog bemoans the "stupid trend of academia" that allows a language to disappear. He even muses about the likelihood of humanity itself becoming extinct, and what an alien archaeologist might find in the tunnels beneath the South Pole.
His narration turns Herzog into the real central character; through his perception, there's nothing quite so grotesque as finding "abominations such as aerobics classes and a yoga studio" in Antarctica.
That said, he knows exactly when to shut up and let the images talk (though his one misstep may be the overuse of dramatic choral music with those images). Like a master guide, Herzog is there to give you not just the story, but a story behind the story. It may be impossible for him to make "another film about penguins," but when he does visit with the waddling birds, you can be sure it's to focus on the disoriented loner who strays from the route. That's Werner's world.