It is easy to get frustrated while viewing Werner Herzog’s latest documentary feature ‘Encounters at the end of the world’. Where the film at first seems to be about the vast frozen continent of Antarctica, it turn out to be equally about the handful of offbeat, sometimes unusual travelers, scientists, philosophers and even eccentric cooks who live there. In an unorthodox move, the documentary is driven not by a single purpose or theme but mostly by the curious impulses of the film maker who comments on everything from his surprise at the gigantic buses he sees at the McMurdo station that he stays in or his irritation at dealing with people who are unwilling to communicate. In this way, ‘Encounters’ is very subjective. As Herzog tells us, he made the trip to the continent after seeing a photograph that a scientist friend of his stationed at McMurdo showed to him. Beyond this and in very firm terms, he told his studio and the National Science Foundation, who were also his hosts, that he would not be interested in making a film about ‘cute penguins’!
As is his forte, Herzog jumps at the opportunity to explore his uninhabitable surroundings. Before any one can step out of the station they are required to take a 2 day training to prepare them for the harsh weather under extreme circumstances. One amusing exercise requires them to wear a white bucket over their heads that substitutes for the kind of sight they would have with winds so strong that visibility would become almost zero. Though the documentary is not perfect because of its tendency to shoot off into tangents, it soon becomes clear that Herzog views human beings as fallible creatures who are just as strange as some of the unusual sea organisms that he films. Thus it becomes as much about people as it is about landscapes. In his no-nonsense voice (we never see him onscreen Michael Moore like) he tells viewers about his personal frustration with the way people have used science to benefit their own purposes of seeking fame, be it by trekking a continent on a pogo stick to be featured in the Guinness book of records or undertaking a journey for the sake of hubris, not humanity. Not fearful of being vocal he even asks a penguin expert, in all seriousness, about whether penguins exhibit gay behaviour or insanity. What we get in the end is an idiosyncratic yet perceptive look at a little known and understood part of our planet.
- by Faizan Rashid [Rated 3.5 out of 5]