The Agony and the Ecstasy

Reviews / by Laura McNeil /

Werner Herzog goes to Antarctica in his ultimately optimistic documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

In one of the first scenes of Encounters at the End of the World we meet a traveling philosopher/forklift driver whom Werner Herzog has seemingly stumbled upon shortly after arriving in Antarctica. When asked to contemplate how he and the filmmaker might have come to cross paths at the South Pole, the man recounts that from a very young age, listening to his grandmother read tales from The Odyssey and The Iliad, he’d been in love with the world; he wanted to explore every part of it.

In a fitting introduction to the film, he acts as the perfect ambassador for Herzog, who demonstrates once again in this, his 29th documentary, a relentless fascination with the world. For Herzog nothing is ordinary, nothing is unremarkable. And that’s exactly the kind of vision he imparts to us in Encounters.

With only the caveat that he would not be coming up with a film about penguins — “My questions about nature were different,” he reveals. “Why doesn’t a chimp straddle a goat and ride off in to the sunset?” — Herzog embarks on a tour of the icy continent. First stop is McMurdo Station, headquarters of the National Science Foundation and home to 1,100 people over the summer months.

From the beginning it’s clear that Herzog is interested not only in Antarctica, the place, but in Antarctica, the idea. Otherworldly footage of the sea under the ice is what initially drew Herzog to the continent. And he is curious to know what brought everyone else. We meet a motley league of “professional dreamers,” including a former banker who drives Ivan the Terra Bus and who narrowly escaped death by machete in his previous vocation and a journeyman plumber who displays the distinct shape of his hands, which, he relays, are a mark of the Aztec and Incan royal family. Antarctica attracts people because it offers something to each of them: escape, freedom, a challenge, magnificent beauty, a chance to meet people like themselves. For Herzog, Antarctica the idea is something for which there is no single answer but rather a kaleidoscope of visions. It is a collection of dreams.

The continent, however, is a designated research reserve and is populated mainly for the purposes of science. So it is the scientists who are, in effect, the heroes of this story; the latter-day Shackletons, whose intentions have evolved from claiming territory to understanding it. After Herzog and crew undertakes a mandatory “Happy Camper” survival school — to absolutely glorious effect — they head out to meet some.

The first research group we’re introduced to, several kilometers away from McMurdo, is studying seals. The team marvels at the viscosity of the lactose-free milk of mother seals and the silence of the surroundings — save for the underwater calls of the seal, which one researcher accurately describes as Pink Floyd-ish. A trio of the scientists lie stomach down, with their ears to the ice, in bright orange tableau, listening. Further on, at a research station in New Harbor, divers explore deep beneath the ice. As the camera descends underwater, Herzog wisely drops the commentary and allows us to just watch. The soundtrack of choral music evokes a sense of reverence for the environment; a deepseated awe for undulating jellyfish, schools of krill, sponges, clams, the fresco-like ceiling of ice above. Watching the divers suit up, Herzog comments: “To me they were like priests preparing for mass.” Under the ice, he says, they “find themselves in a separate reality where space and time acquire a strange new dimension. Those few who have experienced it… speak of it as going into the cathedral.” Herzog also visits with vulcanologists and, despite his best efforts, a penguin researcher. Unfortunately we only get a glimpse of the work that all these scientists are up to and are often left with lingering questions. Though perhaps that’s the point.

Several years ago Herzog coined the term “ecstatic truth” to describe his philosophy on truth in documentary film. The “ecstatic truth,” he says, “is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination, and stylization.” As Roger Ebert, to whom Encounters is dedicated, puts it, Herzog’s ecstatic truth is “a truth that is beyond the merely factual, a truth that records not the real world but the world as we dream it.”

This negotiation, though perhaps tied up with the postmodern rejection of the very concept of objectivity, could be seen as one between facts and our interpretation of them; bet ween the world, and the way we choose to look at the world. Documentary, in Herzog’s hands, therefore takes on an altered —  some have argued compromised — identity. Yet, in Encounters, Herzog’s ecstatic truth seems to allow science to live more fully in the world — its wonders, mysteries, and beauty, its practitioners and their doubts, its sense of purpose and its lack of every answer, are all put into stunning relief. Here the private domain of imagination and dreams exists alongside the shared world of facts and theories.

The last research station we visit is that of a neutrino detector experiment. A gigantic balloon of helium is being released into the stratosphere in the hopes that its equipment will detect the highest energy neutrinos in the universe. Peter Gorham, the lead physicist on the project, calls neutrinos “the most ridiculous particle you can think of,” explaining that they are everywhere but don’t actually do anything; we know they exist and we can measure them but they seem to exist on another plane. “It’s like measuring the spirit world.”

Herzog further employs his poetic gaze in grappling with the current state of the Earth. Indeed there is double meaning in the title of the film and the somber tones of the global climate crisis underlie its playfulness. A scientist studying icebergs warns that Antarctica is broadcasting change to the world. Though he admits to not being sure what will happen when these behemoths begin to melt in earnest, he knows that the one he studies contains enough water to run the river Jordan for 1,000 years.

Herzog considers this eventuality and wonders if our only alternative is going to be to create ice with machines. The scene then shifts to McMurdo’s cafeteria where a young filmmaker/cook describes the pleasures provided by the ice cream machine. “When Frosty Boy goes down,” he quips, “it’s a crisis for the community.”

A less subtle commentary on our skewed priorities comes at the foot of the active Mt. Erebus, where, on the heels of his visit with the vulcanologists, Herzog intones that our presence on this planet is at risk. Many among the scientific community, he says, “agree the end of human life is assured. Human life is a part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of dinosaurs being just one of those events. We seem to be next.” Wondering what alien archeologists would think about what we were doing in Antarctica, he introduces a frozen sturgeon, among other memorabilia, that researchers have stowed under the mathematically precise South Pole; a time capsule of sorts made by the researchers, “memories of a world once green.”

Ultimately, however, we’re left with a sense of optimism, if not for the final outcome, then for the journey and those who would take it with us. Herzog’s obvious love for human beings and awe for the natural world is perhaps best articulated by the traveling philosopher to whom we return at the end of the film. Quoting Alan Watts, he says, “We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory.” The wonderful thing about such a statement is that it can describe both the work of scientists and that of Werner Herzog.  — Laura McNeil is editor of Seed.

Originally published November 12, 2008

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