Enthralled by a wild, wondrous natural world that he views as a mutating organism in constant dialogue with its human inhabitants, Werner Herzog is an environmentalist in the purest sense of the term. Notoriously adventurous, the German director—motivated by mesmerizing footage of deep-sea divers swimming beneath the South Pole’s ice shelf that he first featured in 2005’s fiction-documentary hybrid The Wild Blue Yonder—initiates yet another investigative quest into the planet’s (and mankind’s) mysteries with Encounters at the End of the World, which charts his journey to Antarctica on the dime of the National Science Foundation. There, he finds a landscape akin to the surface of the moon, a research outpost straight out of The Thing that he suggests might be what early space colonies will look like, and a ragtag group of people who share his fascination with ecological marvels and enigmas, a philosophical temperament, and a wandering daredevil spirit. At home in this vast, majestic frozen wasteland, Herzog is his usual endearingly sincere, bombastic self, his narration flirting with the grandiose and pretentious, and his wry sense of humor at ease with his awestruck curiosity.
Per familiar Herzog dictates, Encounters is captivated by the relationship between man and nature, between the rational and the irrational, and between the earthly and the divine, topics upon which he reflects through a variety of unique subjects in and around McMurdo Station (an “ugly mining town”). Choir-singing, present during the title sequence, again materializes as divers silently plunge into the dark, frigid water they refer to as “the cathedral.” A geologist describes ice as “a dynamic, living entity that produces change,” while a shot of bulging ice shelves (illuminated, like clouds, by the sun) looming above the fertile ocean floor resembles a planet in miniature. Cheerfully talking about his near-execution during a Peace Corps mission in Guatemala, a truck driver recounts—in an anecdote that epitomizes the dangers of plunging into the untamed boondocks—how a tourist was later hacked to death with machetes by indigenous tribes. The otherworldly cries of seals (described as sounding like Pink Floyd) resound from underneath the ocean’s frozen surface, and in one of numerous stunning juxtapositions, Herzog mirrors earlier shots of the animals lying prostrate on the ice with that of researchers listening, ear to ground, to their eerie wails.
Characteristically, Herzog chats with fantastic real-world characters, including one woman who discusses traveling from Ecuador to Peru in a sewer pipe, among other amazing tales. Meanwhile, he laces the proceedings with surprising, semi-self-parodic levity, beginning with an introductory admission to being interested in investigating atypical Big Questions, such as why sophisticated chimpanzees don’t exploit weaker beasts and “straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset.” After inquiring about penguins’ potential homosexual tendencies, Herzog asks a marine biologist if the birds ever go “insane” because they’ve had enough of the colony. It’s a query that initially comes off as glibly amusing, until his camera lingers on a penguin breaking off from the pack to wander, irrationally, toward a mountain range and “certain death,” an image—of madness? Of single-minded individualism?—that’s reflected in subsequent archival footage of an explorer being wounded during a foolhardy descent into an active volcano.
Given its thematic and visual echoes with not only The Wild Blue Yonder but also The White Diamond, Encounters sometimes comes off as minor Herzog. Yet intoxicatingly poetic and profound, it’s nonetheless also vital, offering an experience that—as with much of the director’s superlative nonfiction work—is best summed up by a phrase seen carved in a McMurdo wood banister: “I sink into bliss.”