Sunday, December 7, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

At the outset of Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World, he declares "The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins." Approximately an hour later into the film, we see...penguins.

Well, it's not like you could do a documentary about the South Pole and not mention penguins. Herzog attempts to put his own spin on the penguins in a decidedly non-Happy Feet way. He asks the scientific expert about gay penguins (actually, maybe that IS a decidedly Happy Feet reference...) and about penguin insanity.

It turns out that penguins can become disoriented--or "deranged" as Herzog puts it--and to prove the point the film shows a solitary penguin eschewing both the colony camp and the feeding ground to head inland towards the mountains 70 km away, even though it means certain death.

Penguins aside (and Herzog spends only about 5 minutes of the 101 minute long film on the subject), the film focuses on what Herzog terms the "professional dreamers": those who spend their lives living and working in the austere, harsh and desolate place. According to one of those dreamers, "If you take everybody who's not tied down, they all sort of fall down to the bottom of the planet.." and another muses, "...this place works almost as a natural selection for people that have this intention to jump off the margin of the map, all we all meet here where all the lines of the map converge."

But the real star of the film is Antarctica itself--the harsh and sparse topography above the ice and the diverse and alien habitat under water. Herzog captures the breathtaking and majestic beauty of the continent. But along with the beauty comes the ugly reality of global warming which Herzog sees as the beginning of the end of human life on this planet.

Availabe at, the two-disc DVD set contains the feature film complete with audio commentary from director Werner Herzog, producer Henry Kaisel and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger; the featurettes Under the Ice, Over the Ice and Dive Locker Interview, South Pole Exorcism and Seals & Men; plus an interview with Herzog conducted by Jonathan Demme.

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