July 11, 2008

REVIEW: Encounters at the End of the World (A-)

Background: The buildup to Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World has been almost as strange as the subject of the film itself. After seeing it as the closing night selection of the MSP Int'l Film Festival earlier this year, I had very little to work with in writing my preview. In the months since then, there still hasn't been much buzz about it, at least outside of the interwebs (excluding the film's own website, which is in every way terrible). I suspect the lack of attention is because on the surface, Encounters looks like an extended episode of "NOVA" or "Planet Earth". I get that, but do people realize that a.) Werner Herzog made it, and b.) the film is a love letter to legendary critic Roger Ebert? See Ebert's response to the dedication here.

Synopsis: Almost right off the bat, Herzog tells us he's not out to make another film "about penguins." Instead, he says he's interested in the rather bizarre subculture of scientists that live in Antarctica. I could try to list them all but let's just say they all end in "-oligist", and most would require 5-7 spelling attempts. But there are other types of people down there as well: plumbers, divers, linguists (there's no language here - get it?), forklift driver/philosophers, etc. Herzog doesn't really even bother focusing on the place that is Antarctica, at least not outside of the interviews with this motley band of adventurers, but we somehow still end up knowing a lot more than we did going into it.

I Loved:
+ The underwater tracking shot - you'll know it when you see it. Currently, it's the most mesmerizing scene I've seen in any film this year. I was in a trance.
+ The interviews with the iceberg tracker, the scuba diving cell biologist, and the quirky lady who stuffs herself in a duffel bag.
+ The tragically hilarious shot of the penguin wandering off.

I Liked:
+ Herzog's narration, equally irritating and endearing. When he talks I always feel like I'm listening to someone tell me a fairy tale.
+ The interviews with the royal plumber and the seal experts.

I Disliked:
- The last quarter of the film, which lagged a bit for me despite the exploding volcano.
- That a number of the scientific concepts went way over my head. That might have been the point, but I felt like I should have been taking notes for a test when the lights came up.

I Hated:
- The horrifying creatures that live at the bottom of the sea. I have enough trouble in an aquarium, so this was a little uncomfortable.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 27/30= 90% = A-

Last Word: Here's where I admit that I haven't seen nearly enough of Werner Herzog's films. But here's where I also submit that in the case of Encounters at the End of the World, it doesn't really matter that much. What he's presented requires only an adventurous attitude and a little curiosity about a place that nobody reading this has ever been. Herzog takes care of the rest, livening it up with just the right subjects and mostly the right questions. The frequent Gregorian chants and choral hymns in the background make Antarctica seem even more majestic than it looks in the beautiful shots above and below the icy landscape.

Despite his jokey questions that introduce the film, I don't think Herzog had a very clear motive in making Encounters. If he asked in 2005's Grizzly Man, "What is the nature of man's relationship to animals?," I suppose the question here would be, "What is the nature of man's relationship to the elements of this planet?" But as much as I enjoyed all of the interviews, I wonder if Herzog's work doesn't shine a little brighter when he focuses all his energy on one person. Doing that may have taken away from the bigger picture, however, as it would have been impossible to be in place like that and not turn the camera on the next person that walked by.

Those people down there at the end of the world are humans, after all, (even though Herzog describes them as "professional dreamers" and documents them like animals in the wild). In his amusing few minutes on camera, linguist William Jirsa may describe it best: "if you take everyone who is not tied down, they fall down to the bottom of the planet." In that sense, then, Herzog has not only given us a better understanding of this mysterious Earth, but he's given us, ultimately, a better understanding of ourselves.


  1. Yip, want to see this one badly too.

    No sign on it on the horizon for me either...*sigh*

  2. I still haven't decided what to make of this one. I like it. In fact, I think I like it because I'm not sure what to make of it.

    On the surface, yeah, it looks like an episode of Nature, but it's not. The things that fascinate Herzog are alternately hilarious and haunting.

  3. Herzog is the Chuck Norris of cinema.

  4. Just check the official website, Nick. The screening schedule is only 10 months behind...

    That's a good explanation, Craig. There's no frame of reference for anything that we see, so you have to at least appreciate the novelty of it all.

    I'm jumping, Cinex, but it's still over me head - forgive me. Norris?

  5. Herzog's narrations of his docs are both hilarious and maddening. He can be so pompous that its almost over the top, but, as you say, he's endearing because he's so, well ... Herzog.

  6. Thanks for a thoughtful heads up on another interesting documentary. You're becoming the patron saint of documentary filmmakers with your thorough coverage of their work and natural rapport with the genre. If I'm contemplating watching a documentary I know the value of first consulting your review of it.

    Also, thanks for your link to Ebert's letter. I struggle at times to understand the esteem he is held in by so many, but this response reminded me that he is capable of beautifully crafted writing, that exudes warmth and humility, and almost casually offers up insightful analysis.

  7. It sure sounds pompous, Rick, though I don't know if that's really who he is or if that's just the way he inflects his narration. Either way, half of the bits here come off as jokes - I think on purpose.

    Thanks a lot, sartre. I have to reemphasize that at this point I'm still much more of a fan of docs than am I an expert on them, but I'm glad if I can help them reach a wider audience in some small way.

    Right on about Ebert. I don't consider him the most analytical and academic critic out there, but he's definitely one of the most casually readable, and everybody can appreciate that.

  8. "I'm jumping, Cinex, but it's still over me head - forgive me. Norris?"

    Chuck Norris = Awesome. That's all. :)

  9. Haha, of course...I actually thought you might have meant that Herzog has the dynamic personality that could carry a show like "Walker, Texas Ranger"...

  10. One thing that's really hard about living in SF is that in order to see most movies it's an hour trip downtown and costs a lot and there's no parking and muni and bart cost money...bummer. I think I'll make a special trip for this one though.


  11. I feel your pain, Whitney. The cities that play the best movies don't always make it easy to see said movies. Actually, though, I was in your neighborhood a couple of weeks ago and was happy with the theater offerings in Berkeley.

    For what it's worth, I think Encounters might be worth trying to see on a big screen...


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