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Encounters at the End of the World
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by Lybarger

"More than just pretty, desolate pictures."
4 stars

It’s tempting to think that only a crazy person would desire to live in Antarctica for an extended period of time. But German director Werner Herzog (‘Grizzly Man,’ ‘Rescue Dawn’) has made a nearly 40-year career out of following eccentrics and madmen, revealing that even the seemingly insane can have engrossing, vital things to say.

In 2006, Herzog was invited by his friend, musician and scientist Henry Kaiser to follow the residents of Antarctic settlements. Considering that Herzog has specialized in filming in remote locations like South American jungles (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God”) and the grizzly mazes of Alaska (“Grizzly Man), it’s not surprising he’d take up the challenge.

Thankfully, he also has an agenda other than getting cute shots of penguins. In fact, more than an hour passes before the continent’s most famous residents even appear.

Instead, Herzog is more interested in knowing what sort of person would live in these settlements and what they might have to say to the rest of the planet.

To a person, the folks that Herzog interviews all seem eerily fatalistic. Most think that human dominance of the planet is coming to an end, and it’s reflected in their taste in entertainment. Movies like “Them!,” in which the human race is threatened by giant radioactive ants, are really popular.

For the scientists and even the lay people, global warming is not as debatable as politicians seem to think it is. One even points out how an overwhelming amount of water is soon heading to sea as an iceberg breaks off of the content. In the one brief sequence, he manages to make Al Gore’s descriptions of climate change seem cheery in comparison.

Herzog and his subjects wonder if other things will be lost in the near future. One interviewee is a linguist who somehow lives on the bottom of the world even though there are no native languages to study. Nonetheless, the man Herzog questions points out that languages are disappearing and taking the cultures that inspired the tongues with them.

Thankfully, Herzog isn’t content to leave his audience with only fear and sadness. His regular cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger expectedly captures hundreds of breathtaking images.

There’s a world of creatures and plants that are only now being studied. Herzog isn’t too far off when he says that the animals his crew photographs look like characters from a science fiction story. The life forms look so exotic, it’s hard to tell what phylum they are, much less species. At one point, the scientists discover three previously unknown species from a single dive.

As with his previous documentaries, Herzog is unapologetically subjective. His voiceover takes over while others are talking and spends as much time explaining his own motivation as well as examining the thinking of Antarctic residents.

Herzog empathizes with these people, and it’s doubtful he would have made the film if he didn’t. Like his subjects, he frequently flaunts convention, leading some to think he’s mad as well. For example, Herzog once threatened to eat his shoe if fellow filmmaker Errol Morris ever finished “Gates of Heaven.” Morris went on to make a classic, and Herzog kept his word and dined on the footwear as a camera rolled.

Because he shares his subjects’ unconventional approach to life, he captures them without cheap ridicule or blind acceptance. As a result, “Encounters at the End of the World” contains surprises that rival the contents below the ice shelf.

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originally posted: 08/19/08 12:36:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/31/11 brian The last frontier of the last frontier on earth. 5 stars
6/25/09 mark chambers Changed the way I think 5 stars
1/27/09 Shaun Wallner Awesome Story! 5 stars
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  11-Jun-2008 (G)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2008


  DVD: 18-Nov-2008

Directed by
  Werner Herzog

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