Encounters at the Edge of the World

In his inimitable style, Werner Herzog introduces Encounters at the Edge of the World, seen at FACT today, by stating ‘the National Science Foundation invited me even though I made it clear I would not be making another movie about penguins’.

It’s certainly not a film about penguins (though there is a memorable sequence about deranged penguins); more, it’s about a group of people who ‘seem to have fallen off the edge of the world and ended up at the bottom of it’: the melting pot of drifters, philosophers and professional thinkers who make up the population of McMurdo. Early in the film, in the hold of the cargo plane taking him to the edge of the world, Herzog pans around those aboard, and asks ‘Who are these people? What are their dreams?’  The movie is less about the Antarctic itself as the kind of people who would choose to go there: machine operators, cosmic dreamers, philosophers and inveterate travellers. There is a welder claiming royal Aztec lineage, a linguist with a penchant for botany and a computer expert who puts herself in a bag, as well as a taciturn penguin specialist. All have reached a place where any further travel is virtually impossible; and the only frontier left is inward.

There are nutritional ecologists hoping to unlock the secrets of human weight loss by studying nursing seals;  a biologist who dives under the ice without a line to study the strange and violent world of tiny protozoa; and a team of physicists imagining the unimaginable: neutrinos, sub atomic particles constantly passing through us.

It turns out  Herzog was inspired to make the film by his friend, musician Henry Kaiser (who also composed the soundtrack), whose underwater video (Kaiser is also an expert diver and cameraman) filled Herzog’s head with a stunning vision of a polar world turned upside down – the ice above, the blue below.  But what Herzog finds when he arrives at McMurdo is more like an ugly mining town.

The penguins do appear later when Herzog attempts to draw out a reclusive marine ecologist, who has been studying penguin colonies for the past 20 years, by asking: ‘Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins because they’ve had enough of their colony?’  Not to Ainley’s knowledge. However, Herzog poignantly films a deranged penguin plodding steadily toward certain doom amid the crags of the interior mountain range: ‘If you turn him around in the right direction he will turn himself around, and keep going in the wrong direction, until he starves and dies.’  The sight of the penguin waddling optimistically toward his doom, so sure he is correct, must have resonated as a metaphor for Herzog, who intones towards the end that humankind is likewise headed for extinction.

So: it’s a film full of eccentric, larger than life characters (the humans), but also stunning images and sounds. I’ll not easily forget the underwater vocalizations of Weddell seals sounding like electronic music powering through the FACT’s surround-sound speaker system.

As the film ends a forklift-driver-philosopher quotes Alan Watts: ‘We are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its own magnificence.’


Who are the people here and what brought them to Antarctica?

Seal sounds

Deranged penguin sequence

Werner Herzog (from New Statesman):

My new film, Encounters at the End of the World, is a documentary about Antarctica. There is a strangeness and beauty out there that really attracted my curiosity – it’s pure science fiction without any technical trick. All the underwater footage, the footage of the South Pole or the tunnels of ice under Mount Erebus, these are images that haven’t been worn out yet in commercials, on television, or in magazine advertisements. This kind of imagery is deeply embedded in our collective soul, but we haven’t articulated it yet.

I’m trying to name the glories of the continent. I did not go there to make a documentary about cute penguins, because I am opposed to the Disneyfication of wild nature. I have a very stark view. You can see it in Grizzly Man, you can see it in Fitzcarraldo, I could rattle off 20 other examples of my films. Walt Disney is a bastard child of Romanticism. It’s strange that sometimes I have been labelled a romantic, because nobody can be more unromantic than I am.

My style is different from that of television nature documentaries, but I wouldn’t put them down; in Great Britain you have some of the finest in the world. I am a David Attenborough fan. I like his excitement, I like the fervour, and how he comes across to an audience is just wonderful. You see the excitement that you feel as a child when you discover for the first time that there are mountains on the moon when you look through a telescope. He transports this kind of excitement, this spirit of wonder, into what he sees and what he presents. The wonder and excitement he and I share makes us brothers. I salute Attenborough.

Encounters . . . is not about climate change – I don’t need to add to the films about that. Besides, climate change is probably only one of the many elements which show that our presence on this planet is not sustainable. That doesn’t make me nervous. It doesn’t make me nervous that the dinosaurs died out. And it doesn’t make me nervous that the trilobites died out, hundreds of millions of years before the dinosaurs. Life on this planet has been a constant chain of cataclysms and extinctions. It is obvious that we are going to be next.

Everybody talks about extinction of the whales, but what we are not aware of is that at the same time, at a much more rapid rate, human languages and cultures are dying out. I am planning a long-term film project on dying languages, and the speed at which they are dying out is staggering. Within the next 50 years, 90 per cent of all spoken languages on this planet will have disappeared without a trace. That is a terrible loss for human culture, because language is always a way to understand the world. You just have to imagine what will happen if tomorrow the last speaker of the Russian language dies out. There would be no more Tolstoy, no more Mandelstam, no more Akhmatova, no more Dostoevsky, no more Orthodox music, no more scientists from Russia, no more philosophers, no more Orthodox Church. It is catastrophic.

Finally, as the credits rolled, I noticed that Herzog had dedicated the film to one of my favourite film critics, Roger Ebert.


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