Part-Time Review: Encounters at the End of the World (2008)

Overall Grade: B+

Encounters at the End of the World is a documentary that plays in some ways like a travelogue, but boasts all the power of a drama. Werner Herzog, director of films like Rescue Dawn and Grizzly Man, brings along a film crew for his trip to Antarctica, and the footage is compiled into this documentary. On a cursory view, one would think that Herzog is just filming the several encounters he had in Antarctica with the different scientists, mechanics, engineers, and philosophers that find themselves at the south most part of the world. However, Herzog quickly puts that thought to bed when he reveals he told the American Science Foundation that the purpose of the trip wasn’t to “film fuzzy penguins”, but to try and answer questions about nature that have plagued him.

Questions like why do men put on masks (referencing the lone ranger), saddle horses and ride off after evil? Why do some versions of ants keep certain worms as slaves in order to steal the sugar they produce? Why don’t the relatively smart chimpanzees mount horses and ride off? Ultimately, Herzog seemingly asks, “Why do humans consistently try to fight, dominate, and control nature?” To a small extent, he’s the Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldbum of Jurassic Park) of Antartica.

What eventually plays out in the documentary is Herzog’s meditation on the humility of man before nature and the inevitability of our destruction as a species while nature continues to go on (giving new meaning to the title of the film). Herzog demonstrates this idea by visiting the mathematical south pole, which is only visited by walking through hundreds of feet of ice tunnel. At the pole there are some human produced oddities, like a large frozen fish, and a shrine with popcorn lacing and a couple flower petals. Surely its odd, but Herzog wonders aloud, “When we (humans) have gone and past, and others come and find this place, what will they think we were doing here?”

Herzog sees the activities at the South Pole as a microcosm of man attempting to defeat nature. Whether he’s talking about machismo attempts to claim some achievement (as he seems to view Shackleton’s expedition to the pole), simple safety precautions (people are required to put white buckets on their head and find a lost partner to simulate a “whiteout”), or scientific endeavors (divers blast and saw through ice in order to make diving holes), the specter of man’s inability to fully control nature lurks behind.

In the most memorable scene in the documentary, Herzog asks a penguin specialist if he’s ever seen a penguin go insane and just act contrary to everything thats in their nature. The specialist then told Herzog that every now and then a penguin will just wander off from the group, neither going to the groups nesting area or the feeding area. They will find a lonesome penguin heading toward the barren mountains, but first having to cross miles and miles of ice, leading to certain death. There is footage of such a trip by a penguin and Herzog in his best narration (that seems to relate to such similair decisions by men) simply asks, “Why?”

Encounters at the End of the World is an excellent documentary and has stuck with me for some time since I’ve watched. I am ultimately not as cynical about man's interaction with nature as Herzog is, but for the span of an hour and a half, it’s quite an experience to view the world through Herzog’s eyes. I suppose its healthy to be reminded of man's smallness in the grand scheme of things, for isn't it written somewhere that "the dust returns from the ground it came from..."? I just like to always remind myself of the second part of that quote, "...and the spirit returns to God who gave it".