Encounters at the End of the World
At the outset of his extraordinary, Oscar-nominated documentary about the life and landscape around the Antarctic community of McMurdo Station, director Werner Herzog announces that this is not a film about fluffy penguins. Sure enough, Encounters … is no soppy zoological adventure. But neither is it a serious study of flora and fauna in the style of David Attenborough. Instead, it is an idiosyncratic take on an already pretty out-there subject, the kind of bonkers endeavour with which Herzog has defined his wonderfully weird career.
Gobsmacked by a friend’s series of photographs taken beneath the frozen Ross Sea, the intrepid Herzog hitched a ride with a planeload of some of the 1100 inhabitants of McMurdo Station, home to the National Science Foundation. There, he interviewed scientists, technicians, plumbers and truck drivers and ventured into the awe-inspiring continent to see what brought these people to such an inhospitable place.
The results are astonishing, illuminating, hilarious and sobering. Far from being a paradise away from the rest of the planet, McMurdo looks like a rundown mining camp. On the other hand, a trip beneath frozen sea unearths an alien environment straight out of a science fiction film.
Climbing up to the rim of an active volcano, Herzog is instructed by a volcanologist not to turn and run if it erupts but to face the exploding magma and dodge the red-hot globs. Back at base, a biologist tells the director mankind is headed for extinction. What unites this motley crew is their passion for the place they’ve found themselves drawn to and the hard reality check it’s given them.
Ultimately, the initially sceptical and scoffing Herzog is won over, which provides this otherwise dazzling film with emotional clout. He even finds time to film a penguin. Though this being a Herzog film, it’s a clinically insane one.
GFT, Glasgow and Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 24 Apr.