He has us at hello with the first shot. In the opening to Werner Herzog’s brilliant, funny, exploratory, and sobering new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog shows the dreamy, underwater footage in Antarctica that he says first intrigued him about the idea of going to the South Pole to make a movie. A diver glides through the water beneath the multi-colored ice, where new species of organisms are still being discovered. This visually hypnotic footage becomes an undercurrent, so to speak, for Herzog’s latest investigation into our odd, destructive species and the mystery of existence.
This time around, thanks to the National Science Foundation, Herzog goes south. There he finds arid beauty, the kind of eccentric humanity he has been intrigued by for decades-in both fiction films and documentaries-and also harbingers of global doom. Providing an insightful and witty running monologue, replete with his German-accented, charmingly mangled English, Herzog gives us a tour of a forbidding but seductive place, where scientists and other “professional dreamers” end up.
History will show that, among his other virtues as an unlikely cinematic visionary, Herzog is one of the more fascinating and artful of documentarians. He comes to his projects from quirky angles, but stirs up surprising results. In this case, Herzog was seduced by the underwater footage, shot by friend/musician Henry Kaiser, who also provided this film’s lyrical, guitar-driven musical score.
Herzog worked wonders with found footage and existential detective work in Grizzly Man. Here, he follows up on a long-standing interest in explorers and global extremes, as seen in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Naturally, Encounters repeatedly cross-references the doomed Shackleton expedition of 1922, and Herzog later criticizes the explorer instinct for its ulterior egotistical and nationalistic ambitions.
Underlying all the quirky human-interest subplots and expressions of awe for this majestic and still-remote end of the earth, there remains the grim aspect of global warming’s ominous portent. Mankind has viewed the South Pole as a monolithic, anchoring global constant, but Herzog points out, “Our comfortable feeling about Antarctica is changing,” and faster than most are willing to admit. Encounters is the warmest and most humane doomsday film you’re likely to find anywhere.