Werner Herzog is at the top of his game this year. Catapulted by the unexpected success of Grizzly Man a few years ago, Herzog has regained some of the filmmaking prestige he had back in the 80s with films like Fitzcarraldo. Last summer’s Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of the year (I gave it four stars in my CT review) and featured a stunning and grievously underrated performance by Christian Bale. Then a few months ago, Herzog showed up as an actor (playing an eccentric priest) in Harmony Korine’s gorgeous Mister Lonely. But his latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, might take the cake. It’s certainly the best documentary I’ve seen this year.
Like many of Herzog’s films, Encounters is a thing of spellbinding beauty, intrigue, and wonderment. Commissioned by the Discovery Channel, Herzog’s film is unlike most other documentaries about Antarctica. First of all, it’s not about penguins (though “deranged penguins” do make a cameo). Rather than focusing solely on the natural environment or breathtaking photography (though it certainly has its fair share of these things), Encounters is a sort of travelogue that examines the humans who inhabit the seventh continent. More specifically, it asks the typical Herzogian questions: what draws man to live among such a harsh environment? Who are humans in the face of such awesome natural forces?
Herzog interviews a motley crew of scientists, engineers, wayfaring travelers, and otherwise eccentrics from all over the world, who inhabit the “town” of McMurdo Station during Antarctica’s summer months. Herzog’s sardonic voiceovers (in his memorable German accent) frame each interview with editorial commentaries, and as usual his personality adds much flavor to the tonally rich film.
For the scientific junkies among us, there is plenty of amazing stuff here: volcanoes, icebergs, microbiology, otherworldly underwater footage, speculation about the nature of neutrinos, and more. And Herzog manages to make it all utterly compelling, almost holy. Indeed, Herzog is never too afraid to insinuate spirituality into his examinations of nature. He frequently inserts language like “other-worldly,” “cathedral,” and “god” in his reckonings with a nature he continues to be utterly drawn in to and baffled by.
Herzog’s prevailing cinematic conflict is that of man vs. nature, and that is certainly the case in Encounters—a film that concludes rather nonchalantly that human life is reaching its inevitable conclusion on planet earth. He addresses global warming but treats it almost as a convenient sheet over our eyes—blinding us from the obvious truth that nature is winning, will win, and humanity’s days are numbered. Nevertheless, Herzog’s film is not in the least a somber or apocalyptic polemic (like An Inconvenient Truth or something), but rather a jubilant, child-like exploration of a totally fascinating topic.
There are moments in this film that are so beautiful, so true, that one doesn’t mind that the point of the film is to show us how tiny and powerless and, well, stupid we humans are. But I’ve always thought it a valuable thing to be reminded of: that the creation we are a part of is utterly beyond our comprehension and, to an extent, control. Sure, we are changing the climate with our massive pollutants, but there are bigger things going on in nature that we cannot account for.
In this way, Herzog’s analysis of the natural world is both eco-friendly and eco-ambivalent. His relationship to nature is similar to many Christians’ relationship to God: he fears it, loves it, and is totally dependent on it. Indeed, nature is Herzog’s god, and the passion and reverence with which he artfully approaches it is something we all might learn from.