To state the ludicrously obvious, I have nothing in common with Werner Herzog: he risks death against exploding volcanoes and hostile Amazon tribes, while I sit in a tiny windowless room and type away, carefully avoiding anything more dangerous than an Internet flame war. But he makes me happier than just about any working filmmaker, even when his movies are nearly indigestible: there’s something about his complete confidence in his own views that makes me wonder, at least for a blissful moment, what all the fuss about moral relativism is. Like Balzac or Lars von Trier, he’s the final authority on the world around him, even when it’s a self-created one. Encounters at the End of the World picks up where 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder left off: under Arctic ice, cameras exploring the dirty Styrofoam-ish underside of the normally picture-pristine continent. The Wild Blue Yonder was essentially a garbled compilation doc, taking footage of Antarctica and outer space and imposing a half-assed sci-fi framework on them. Encounters begins with Herzog arriving on the continent to get his own damn footage.
At 65, Herzog is less prone to absurd physical endangerment, but he’ll still brave mild physical discomfort. He’s beginning to curdle into his own anthologist and, possibly, caricature: Encounters is a haphazard compendium of his pet concerns (nature’s savagery, humanity’s impending doom, transcendence through physical extremes) with no real rhythm or pacing. For starters, Herzog lets us know he’s not interested in the usual questions about Antarctica; quite reasonably, he’s more interested in e.g. why a chimpanzee doesn’t just straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset into Monument Valley. While he’s at it, he’s also got some scores to settle with the insipid March Of The Penguins, but that’s about it as far as a throughline goes.
All over the place tonally, one moment Herzog’s hilariously denouncing “abominations such as aerobics rooms and yoga classes” (Antarctica shouldn’t be so settled, it seems), the next moment he’s asking Sam Bowser, cell biologist, whether evolution isn’t just the result of proto-humans trying to get away from a horrible and savage underwater world. The criteria for not getting made fun of by Herzog are pretty unclear: a self-described “Philosopher/Forklift Driver” gets a wide-eyed, respectful pass, while a linguist by training gets made fun of for falling prey to both “insipid academic” and “New Age” trends whenever he offers the same kind of bullshit response as everyone else as to why he’s there.
“Ph.D’s washing dishes and linguists on a continent with no languages,” the aforementioned linguist sums it up. Antarctica is the ideal continent for Herzog, because it’s a place where everyone is as drawn to deranged and extreme physical circumstances as he is. Presumably forbidden by the National Science Foundation from endangering himself in the usual style, Herzog attempts something closer to one of Chris Marker’s more ambitious cine-essays, except he doesn’t do dialectics: it’s just one damn thing after another. He has no trouble going from interviewing a scientist about neutrinos to dipping into speculative sci-fi mode about what alien archeologists will think of the South Pole stations when they come in thousands of years: it’s all the same to him. It’s a mess, frankly, and I’m not sure I’d take it from anyone else. Antarctica is sometimes a very real physical place, and sometimes it’s just Herzog-land, a place where everyone is at least mildly messed-up and the extreme is the norm. Herzog’s made a career out of filming things no one else will ever see (which is why, perhaps, it’s a bit disingenuous for him to wish that someplace, anyplace, would remain undocumented): in Antarctica, he finds a place where seemingly anyone can go, but only if they really want to. He’s culling the boys from the men.
There’s a sense that Herzog is at least beginning to try to sum himself up, that he’s (quite improbably) worried about his legacy. But there’s still a few blank spots and things undone left to fill in. Late in the film, he pours an unexpected amount of scorn on one Ashrita Furman, a man whose sole goal is to set multiple world records. Having probably set a few unofficially himself, Herzog seems to be bothered by people who do things just to say they’ve done them (unlike his sensationalist feats, presumably all performed in a disingenuous spirit), and he responds to Furman’s assertion that Antarctica is like the moon with a severe rejoinder that it’s “not the moon, even though it sometimes feels like it.” At first, I thought “How does he know? He’s never been.” Then it hit me: WE HAVE TO SEND WERNER INTO SPACE. We owe him, and ourselves, that much.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.