Encounters at the End of the World: Werner Herzog’s Epic

Speaking of truth, we have to touch it with a pair of pliers, because we’ll never even get anywhere close. Still, I’m trying it–Werner Herzog

 

With Encounters at the End of the World, director Werner Herzog becomes the first filmmaker to shoot a feature on each one of the seven continents. Long known and admired for his love of adventurers, explorers, and visionaries, Herzog is himself all three, and has consistently gone where no filmmaker has gone before–aesthetically, dramatically, and geographically.  Throughout his career, which spans more than four decades and includes more than 40 films, he tells stories about men who, like him, are drawn to uncharted territory of all kinds.   Despite the wide variety of his locations and protagonists, Herzog has an unerring ability to find the common threads that unite these disparate people and places with one another and with us.

 

Set in Antarctica, Encounters is chiefly about McMurdo Station, the U.S.-run hub of all activity for the continent, and deals with the roughly 1000 inhabitants who call this remote, unwelcoming, and unique place home. Invited by the National Science Foundation to make the film, Herzog agreed after seeing some breathtaking underwater, or, rather, under-ice home-video footage taken by an arctic diving enthusiast (who was later engaged to compose the docu’s score), Herzog not only deals with the resident population and the extraordinary physical environment in which they live; he also deals with his own experiences on the journey, casting himself as narrator, commentator, and character in his own film.

 

To be sure, of the people Herzog encounters, a high percentage (many of them scientists and researchers) could be considered oddballs, eccentrics, misanthropes, and even madmen. Many are gripped by personal obsessions, some are following a dream, others are merely escaping the conventions of ordinary middle-class life. All of these are traits commonly found among artists, and Herzog, who has famously filmed in the most extreme of conditions (including “literally” at the edge of an active volcano), never lets us forget that he, too, has chosen to come to “the end of the world.” He may be visiting his subjects in Antarctica, but in many significant ways he is also one of them.

 

Dating back to the earliest days of his career, Herzog has shown an interest in the documentary form and has made no fewer than 20 non-fiction films of various lengths interspersed with an equally prolific output of dramatic films. What is most interesting is that, as far as his oeuvre is concerned, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are blurred. If a Herzog project requires the Amazon jungle, a swarm of rats, an emaciated hero, or a meal consisting of maggots, he does not resort to artifice; the actual location, the real thing, and the authentic condition is captured. One fabled example of Herzog’s uncompromising esthetic is his 1976 film, “Heart of Glass.”

 

In this drama, which tells the story of a village consumed by a single-minded obsession, Herzog had his entire cast hypnotized, and then had them perform. They didn’t merely convey a trance-like; they were actually in a trance throughout filming. Also legendary are the extraordinary difficulties Herzog and his crew encountered while making the 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo, about a man’s impossible dream of constructing an opera house in the middle of the jungle. Herzog’s quest was nearly as impossible and production was disbanded and had to be recast before it resumed. So legendary were these exploits, they themselves became the subject of a non-fiction film, Les Blank’s The Burden of Dreams. In Blank’s film, it becomes clear that, in making a film about madness, Herzog (who is Blank’s star), may have actually driven his own stars mad.

 

Just as Herzog has endeavored to bring documentary-style realism to his dramatic films, he has succeeded in bringing the thematic cohesion, authorial voice, and visual splendor that distinguish his finest dramas to his non-fiction work. If his prevailing theme as a filmmaker has been, as classic Herzog narratives as “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo, as it is in such documentaries as La Souffriere, Grizzly Man, and now Encounters at the End of the World.  His entire body of work considers the relationship “often destructive” between human nature and Mother Nature, and he has always gravitated toward, engaged with, and even celebrated, those restless individuals who refuse to be confined by the strictures of normal society and who constantly seek out new horizons.

 

At McMurdo Station Herzog finds nothing but such characters. Among his subjects are a former banker from Colorado who now drives a giant vehicle he calls Ivan the terra Bus; a plumber who claims to be descended from Aztec royalty; and a female researcher who boasts that she has traveled from London to Kenya in the back of a garbage truck and whose specialty, on McMurdo talent night, is to fold her body up into a small, carry-on suitcase.

 

Amid such unusual folk are such usual artifacts–though they are unusual for Antarctica–as an ATM machine, a yoga studio, and a soft serve ice cream machine that has become an object of worship for the locals. Though sometimes offended and distanced from what he sees (he calls the ATM machine an abomination), Herzog is more often amused, and never less than engaged. And, in keeping with the ruggedly individualistic nature of McMurdo, his entire crew on the film consisted of two men–himself (also serving as sound man), and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger.

 

After decades of filming in the world’s most remote locations, Antarctica may represent Herzog’s final frontier, but Encounters proves that his thirst for new experiences remains unquenched. It also reconfirms his unparalleled ability to photograph sights no one has ever before seen without sacrificing either their majesty or mystery.

 

There are images in Encounters that are as wondrous as any ever captured on film and, more importantly, they succeed in conveying to even the most jaded moviegoer the sense of awe that Herzog must have felt when seeing these places for the first time. To be sure, other camera crews have gone to Antarctica, but with Werner Herzog guiding us, what might have been mere tourism achieves the level of art.

 

Werner Herzog (Writer, Director, Narrator)

 

Werner Herzog (real name Werner H. Stipetic) was born in Munich on September 5, 1942. He grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw any films, television, or telephones as a child. He started traveling on foot from the age of 14. He made his first phone call at the age of 17. During high school he worked the nightshift as a welder in a steel factory to produce his first films and made his first film in 1961 at the age of 19. Since then he has produced, written, and directed more than forty films, published more than a dozen books of prose, and directed as many operas.

 

Filmography

 

1962 Herakles

1964 Game in the Sand

1966 The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz

1968 Signs of Life

1967 Last Words

1969 Precautions against Fanatics

1969 The Flying Doctors of East Africa

1970 Even Dwarfs Started Small

1970 Fata Morgana

1971 Handicapped Future

1971 Land of Silence and Darkness

1972 Aguirre, the Wrath of God

1973 The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

1974 The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser: Every Man for

Himself and God against All

1976 Heart of Glass

1976 How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck

1976 No One Will Play with Me

1976 Stroszek

1977 La Soufrière

1978 Nosferatu

1979 Woyzeck

1980 God=s Angry Man

1980 Huie’s Sermon

1982 Fitzcarraldo

1984 Ballad of the Little Soldier

1984 The Dark Glow of the Mountain

1984 Where the Green Ants Dream

1987 Cobra Verde

1988 Les Gauloise

1989 Wodaabe – Herdsmen of the Sun

1990 Echoes from a Sombre Empire

1991 Jag Mandir: The Eccentric Private Theater

of the Maharaja of Udaipur

1991 Scream of Stone

1992 Film Lesson

1992 Lessons of Darkness

1993 Bells from the Deep

1994 The Transformation of the World into Music

1995 Death for Five Voices

1997 Little Dieter Needs to Fly

1999 Wings of Hope

1999 My Best Fiend

1999 The Lord and the Laden

2000 Invincible

2000 Christ and Demons in New Spain

2001 Ten Thousand Years Older

2003 Wheel of Time

2004 The White Diamond

2005 Grizzly Man

2005 The Wild Blue Yonder

2006 Rescue Dawn

2007 Encounters at the End of the World

 

 See Review of Encounters at the End of the World