(A quick aside before my actual review. This is the first film in the block of movies that will compose reviews 401-450. And, boy, it could have barely started on a better note)
I am not a religious man. I was when I was younger, but after seemingly endless bull sessions with intellectual friends in dorm rooms and apartments, I realized that I always wanted to believe in God or a higher power more than I ever really did. And, as an adult, any experiences in my life that I would describe as “spiritual” have come from moments of exposure to pure, unadulterated beauty: the first time I listened to Ágaetis byrjun by Sigúr Ros, the time that I was front row for a Bon Iver concert, the magical sing-along of “Hey Jude” at this year’s Bonnaroo, standing atop the mountaintop at the Oracle of Delphi. If spirituality exists, it is indistinguishable from beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime moments that define high-points in our lives. Before today, I can probably only name two films that were spiritual experiences for me, The Tree of Life and Synecdoche, New York. Leave it to German director Werner Herzog (Stroszek), a cinematic philosopher if there’s ever been one, to add another film to that list.
Werner Herzog is somewhat of an enigma, and for those who’ve seen his classic films like Grizzly Man or Stroszek, it’s easy to see why he is both so confounding and exceptionally talented. Similar to Ingmar Bergman, Herzog’s films are driven by philosophical, existentialist questions. Though unlike Bergman (whose interests were in God and religion and sexuality), Herzog is very much interested in man’s doomed pursuit to conquer or supersede nature. His great early films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo all examined men bent on conquering the great unknown and failing or paying an outrageous price for their hubris. Herzog is both in awe of the beauty of nature and simultaneously terrified by its horrors and raw power. His thoroughly unromantic view of the world around us puts him in stark contrast of the majority of his fellow documentarians (though Herzog also makes narrative films). Yet, by capturing both the untapped beauty of Antarctica as well as its unmatched power of destruction and danger, Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World is an almost peerless act of documentary film-making.
After seeing underwater footage from a friend (Henry Kaiser who scored Grizzly Man) from the Ross Sea in Antarctica, Werner Herzog accepted an invitation from the National Science Foundation to visit the South Pole to make a documentary, though in his own words he wasn’t interested in making another film about fluffy penguins. Herzog’s interests are more psychological (though he certainly captures the overwhelming beauty of Antarctica). As much as Werner Herzog is intent on documenting nature at its purest and most unspoiled by man, he also wants to know about what kind of men and women would be driven to leave the rest of the world behind and expose themselves to the hardships of the bottom of the world. Interacting with the inhabitants of McMurdo Station (which Herzog seems to relish sounding similar to the word murder), Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating portrait of the outsiders who found a community in this isolated terrain.
All the while, Herzog (who, along with his cinematographer was the entire cast and crew) provides a wry running commentary. One of the most surprising elements of the film is how funny it can be in a dark and sardonic way. One almost can’t be sure if Herzog is making fun of some of his subjects. Knowing the man’s philosophy about the murderous nature of, for example, the jungle, he certainly doesn’t empathize with those who try to romanticize their surroundings. But, at the same time, it’s also clear that Herzog is fascinated by these men and women. And when he finds a compatible soul in a glaciologist who speaks of the murder and violence of the microscopic world beneath the ice, you get a glimpse of two men conversing who have both stared into the abyss and been terrified but drawn in even further by what they’ve seen.
I speak of the film as spiritual for a variety of reasons. Part of it is the overwhelming beauty of the film. Herzog doesn’t romanticize nature. He doesn’t idealize it. But, he also can’t deny the haunting beauty of the world beneath the ice in the Ross Sea or the luminescent structures haunting a tunnel formed by steam vents near an active volcano. Another part of the spiritual nature of the film (which reminds me of the ending of Synecdoche, New York) is Herzog’s agreement with many scientists that man (whether through our own stupidity or the inevitable corrections of nature) has limited time on this planet and this frozen wasteland will outlast us because even if we destroy it in the short term, we will disappear and it will return. There is a particular sequence where Herzog has conversed with the fatalistic glaciologist and they dive beneath the surface. There was something incredibly humbling and awe-inspiring about that journey into a world where humanity simply isn’t meant to be. It was otherworldly and alien, and a reminder that there is so much of the universe that humanity will never experience.
Herzog’s decisions on how to score the film border on genius. The film utilizes a nearly liturgical, spiritual score of chanting and organ-driven hymns of some kind, and when they are beneath the ice (I can’t even begin to stress how haunting those sequences were) or in the steam tunnels, the score kicks into high gear and Herzog has the wisdom to shut up and just let the power of the scenery do all of the speaking necessary. And there’s a moment about midway through the film where Herzog visits a camp of scientists studying the seals that live in the area and they begin discussing the nearly inorganic sounds that these seals make to communicate. One of the scientists compares it to Pink Floyd, and it’s nearly accurate. Were these not some of the most respected scholars in their fields talking, I would have thought Herzog was pulling a fast one on us and just playing unsettling electronic music rather than recording seal calls. It’s almost beyond belief.
If you have even a passing interest in documentaries or nature, you owe it to yourself to watch Encounters at the End of the World. I fear that I’ve made the film sound too cerebral and that I may scare some viewers away from watching this powerful film. The intellectual and philosophical nature of the film is there if you want it (I certainly did), but if you just want to bask in the gorgeous and haunting scenery, you can do that as well. Encounters at the End of the World, like many of the best films, operates on a multitude of equally fascinating levels. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this film will stay with me for a long time, and I hope to return to its alien and exotic world many times in the future.
Final Score: A