Encounters at the End of the World (2007) – I Sink Into Bliss…

I originally intended to do a double bill review, matching Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World with Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer.  Both films are about dreamers.  Brown’s chilled out travelogue accompanies two surfers around the globe as they chase the endless summer of the title.

Herzog’s documentary meets the oddballs that accumulate in the Antarctic – these dreamers follow their dreams to the bottom of the earth instead of round it.

I couldn’t get moving on an Endless Summer review, though.  Perhaps it’s too alien to me.  The closest I ever got to surfing back in England was rolling up my trouser legs and going for a paddle at the seaside.  They also had a wave machine at our local swimming baths.

The Antarctic seems closer in climate to what I’m used to, and the dreamers there find a kind of endless summer of their own.  In the short summer period, the sun never sets – in the 1am sunshine, Herzog focuses on a message carved into a wooden balustrade: “I sink into bliss.”

Encouraged to visit the frozen continent by footage of divers swimming in cathedral-like caverns beneath the Antarctic ice, Herzog clearly feels kinship with the people he meets at McMurdo.

McMurdo station is the largest community on Antarctica, a blighted, industrial jumble of buildings capable of supporting over a thousand residents.  It looks like a frontier town, has its own bowling alley and ATM, and as Herzog notes, is probably what the first outposts on another planet would look like.

Herzog has barely landed before he reels out the footage of Shackleton’s Endurance locked in ice, and one of his subjects points out, with a certain sense of pride, the station’s proximity to Captain Scott’s hut.

Hero worship done with, Herzog settles into his rhythm.  The director is in frivolous mood with Encounters.  Herzog’s voice overs often border on the unintentionally hilarious, as he loftily pontificates on his subjects and sometimes disappears up his own arse.  In the Antarctic, surrounded by oddballs and self-confessed dreamers, he’s in a relaxed and jokey mood, full of dry and deadpan humour.

As with 2010’s far more serious Into the Abyss, Herzog finds his digressive interview technique informative.  He specializes in getting his subjects talking, then taking them away on surreal tangents, which are often far more revealing about the person and the topic than a straightforward Q&A.

Take a meeting with a Glaciologist.  Sounds pretty boring, but Herzog introduces him with the scientist talking with rapture and wonderment about his dream, where he walks on B-15, the world’s largest iceberg, and feels it moving beneath his feet.

Many of Herzog’s most enduring features focus on a larger-than-life male figure.  Klaus Kinski in Aguire: Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo & Nosferatu.  Vietnam POW and natural-born raconteur Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.  The tragically deluded Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man.

The ensemble approach of Encounters makes the film feel more episodic, as Herzog intersperses the interviews with otherworldly footage of the Antarctic seas and icescapes, but helps him celebrate the diverse characters washed up at the South Pole.

A journeyman plumber claims he is a descendant of the Aztec royal family.  A sea diver tells of terrifying creatures found beneath the ice, before it becomes clear he is talking about monsters on a microscopic level.  A mild-mannered, middle-aged hippy chick tells some frankly unbelievable travel stories, before demonstrating her party piece, stuffing herself into a duffel bag.

Herzog celebrates the idiosyncrasies of these peculiar people, and it’s reassuring to know that all the research carried out on earth’s most inaccessible continent is the job of these outcasts and dreamers.  They care sincerely about the planet and environment, and predict the end of the world with a wistful sense of acceptance.

Apart from the interviews and the meditative interludes beneath the ice, there are other highlights.  All visitors need to take a survival course before leaving McMurdo, and a game of “Bucket Heads” aims to recreate the lack of visibility in a white out.  It looks amusing, a group of people bumbling about with a bucket on their head, but is also chilling – it becomes very clear that in a real white out situation, this group of explorers would be in deep shit very quickly.

Two scientists celebrate discovering a new species of blob by throwing an outdoor rock concert.  Herzog pokes fun at a man who has spent so long in the company of penguins, he doesn’t even register the director is joking.  Herzog is quizzing the man about penguins going insane, before focusing on one who’s clearly had enough, waddling away across the ice towards the mountains and certain death.

Encounters at the End of the World is one of Herzog’s lighter-hearted films, and evokes a sense of wonderment at our natural environment, and a feeling of warmth and charity toward the dreamers of the world.  And I’m sure the stoners among us will enjoy the choral, spaced-out moments beneath the ice, which feel like real life trips through the stargate.

About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 22/07/2012, in Documentary, E, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Great review, I really loved the movie and that’s all thanks to Herzog’s great questions and storytelling.

  2. “Lighter-hearted” and “Herzog” in the same sentence seems almost like an oxymoron 😉

    I couldn’t get into Endless Summer either. I started it up a few months ago and lost interest almost immediately. I’ve never seen Encounters… though, may have to check that one out.

    • Light hearted Herzog does sound a bit strange, but the more I’ve seen of his movies, the more I realize he’s not a miserable old sod. He views the universe as a harsh environment, but that doesn’t stop him looking at it with wonder, and he loves dreamers, which in turn makes his films inspiring.

      As for Endless Summer, I liked it, but it’s more for sitting on a sofa with a large spliff. I’ll get round to reviewing it one day!

  3. Very well written piece, I really enjoyed reading it.
    You had me laughing at your comment: “Herzog’s voice overs often border on the unintentionally hilarious, as he loftily pontificates on his subjects and sometimes disappears up his own arse”.
    I would think that with a little less loftiness and lunacy, “Encounters” could have easily been the documentary everyone aspires to make. Still, it is my favorite piece of his oeuvre. Herzog does feel a little less lofty than usual, a bit more “light-hearted”, a little less pretentious, a bit more approachable and, more importantly, a lot more innocent, capturing the landscape with a childlike wonderment that is charming and appealing.

    • Thanks for your feedback, it’s really encouraging to receive your kind comments!

      As for Herzog, it’s his combination of childlike wonder & pretentiousness that I find so endearing, and makes him such a disarming interviewer. If you haven’t seen it already, the final scene of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” contains one of my favourite Herzog mad ramblings….

  1. Pingback: Into the Abyss: Live Your Dash… « Video Krypt

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