Werner Herzog meditates on the surreal slice of civilization that is Antarctica.
Russian Orthodox church choirs provide much of the soundtrack for Werner Herzog's new film on Antarctica, giving it the air of a requiem mass. Whether that was his intention or a happy accident, it's fitting. "Encounters at the End of the World" is a rambling, free-form documentary about final frontiers.
It's partly a report on the adventurous scientists and "professional dreamers" who populate the McMurdo Station research facility, and partly a meditation on human obsolescence. Herzog, a visionary filmmaker with a taste for the surreal and spectacular, has taken his camera from burning Kuwaiti oil fields to Amazonian jungles to the Australian outback for films in which man's existence is nearly irrelevant in the face of nature's awful majesty. He sees us as another passing fad in the chronicle of life on this planet, no different than trilobites or dinosaurs. In the least-populated continent he has found an ideal setting for his ideas.
Leave it to others to make movies about adorable penguins. Herzog found strange, quixotic and unbelievable subjects wherever he looked. McMurdo is bizarre in that it's so prosaic, an outpost of Strip Mall Americana on the South Pole. The science colony's living quarters have a "Motel 6" banality, he observes in a darkly witty voiceover. There is a bowling alley, a radio station, an ice cream maker, an ATM and such "abominations" as a yoga studio and aerobics classes.
The researchers and laborers he encounters are part-time workers and full-time philosophers. Whether they are monitoring the breakup of huge icebergs, searching for neutrinos or driving forklifts, they all seem to be grappling with imponderable questions about existence. One scientist shows his visitors DVDs of 1950s doomsday science-fiction movies while cataloging new species of single-celled marine organisms. Although he's convinced that mankind's end is inevitable, he busies himself with his records of primitive life forms hardy enough to outlive us.
Futility delights Herzog. One tragicomic sequence shows a dozen newbies in survival training, wearing plastic buckets over their heads to simulate white-out conditions. Tethered together on a rope line, they grope blindly toward a colleague pretending to be stranded in a storm. The lifeline tangles underfoot as they make wrong turns, argue about which way is left, and clump together in unmoving knots.
Equally odd-looking are the scientists who press their ears to the ice to hear the eerie seal calls that one compares to Pink Floyd. The researchers are studying seal milk for a possible weight-loss formula, an undertaking that suggests we have a lot left to learn. Taking a swipe at "March of the Penguins," Herzog needles a researcher with questions about homosexuality, prostitution, threesomes and madness in the bird colonies. As if on cue, one marches away from the sea and toward the center of the continent, toward certain death. Suicide, Herzog implies, is preferable to the oppressive company of so many identical birds.
The standout sequences, though, are those shot under the surface of the Ross Sea beneath a ceiling of translucent ice. The frigid waters contain nightmare creatures that have been murdering one another for eons. Herzog asks a biologist if fish learned to walk on land to escape the monstrosities of the deep, and the scientist replies, probably so.
In the same way, the free spirits and lost souls who wanted to leave civilization and its discontents far behind came together at the end of the world, where they made an odd new civilization all their own. In Herzog they have a filmmaker ideally suited to recognize and celebrate that deep irony.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186