Monday 30 June 2008

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World: Film Review

Film director Werner Herzog likes strange people, from Klaus Kinski to Timothy Treadwell, and remote wild places, from the Amazon rain forest (Fitzcarraldo) to the Alaskan wilderness (Grizzly Man). And now, perhaps inevitably, he has made a film about the remotest, wildest place of all, Antarctica, and the strange, driven people who gravitate there. Lured south by images of the weird beauty of the ice and the southern ocean Herzog finds a land where dreamers and adventurers, eccentrics and scientists live huddled together in ugly industrial shanty towns amidst unbelievable natural grandeur. In Encounters at the End of the World Herzog explores the land and the people and his own reactions to it. Some of his findings are humorous, some disquieting, some tragic and he switches abruptly between these, keeping the viewer unsure of what is to come and sometimes thrown off balance, stifling a laugh as the tragic nature of an event is suddenly apparent. This makes for an engrossing, fascinating documentary unlike anything else I have seen or read about Antarctica. The landscape looks as vast and magnificent as ever and is beautifully filmed, especially some underwater sequences following the edge of an ice sheet as it meets the ocean, an unreal, dream-like world. But it’s the people who are most memorable. Philosophers working as fork lift truck drivers, scientists rocking out on top of their hut with discordant electric guitars to celebrate a new discovery, a group of people about to go out onto the ice discovering what a white-out is like by trying to find someone while wearing white buckets on their heads, a scientist showing B movie science fiction films to his team. Herzog looks for the quirky and unusual, the disturbing and the disturbed, and finds it everywhere. The characters he interviews – or rather allows to talk – come across as powerful, committed, larger than life. The director has a trick of holding the camera on their faces before they start or after they finish speaking longer than expected, sometimes revealing powerful emotions. Even the wildlife comes across as unusual. “Are there gay penguins?” Herzog asks a reclusive scientist who has spent years studying them and perhaps prefers their company to that of humans. “Do penguins commit suicide?” The film shows penguins heading for the ocean. One dithers then turns and heads inland, away from any food. “It will die”, says the scientist. Herzog has his answer.

I saw this excellent film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the only film I saw there this year. The performance was sold out. Unsurprisingly the film won Best Documentary at the Festival.

The book in the image was published in 1921 and picked up in a second-hand book shop many years ago. Photo info: Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF 50mm F1.8, flash, program mode, f3.5@1/60, ISO 400, raw file converted to JPEG in DxO Optics Pro.


  1. Thanks for this review - I enjoyed it and I'll look out for the film. They'll probably show it soon at the Broadway in Nottingham, my nearest arthouse cinema. I love quirky European films. I rememeber seeing Herzog's 'Kaspar Hauser' in Frankfurt in the 1970s and it had a profound efect on me - the soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous, though the film is bleak to say the least.

  2. Chris, I see BBC4 is showing 'Fitzcarraldo' and 'Aguirre The Wrath Of God' tonight - then afterwards repeating the Herzog-Yentob interview.

  3. Thanks for the info - I'd like to have seen the interview but I was camped in the hills last night. I don't have BBC4 anyway! We have a couple of Herzog DVD collections (he's my partners favourite director) and so have the two films.