Text by Ryan Bradley
Werner Herzog’s latest film, Encounters at the End of the World, recently opened nationwide. It is a documentary about Antarctica—specifically about McMurdo Station, headquarters of the National Science Foundation (which helped fund the film), and the people living and working in this community of 1,100 at the bottom of the planet.
A little more than a year ago, I spoke to the director about his movie Rescue Dawn, among other things (read the full interview here). He had returned from McMurdo only days before. “What is this film about?” I asked. He paused. “I’m still figuring that out,” he replied.
Encounters is not Herzog’s best film. But it is still thrilling to watch, and worth the price of admission. It is, in many ways, the anecdote to the summer blockbusters. The film is simple, spare; not much more than the German filmmaker and a cameraman walking around McMurdo, meeting folks, seeing them work, and extracting their life stories. It contains several beautiful, bizarre moments that are probably best described as being Herzogian: a suicidal penguin, a failed survival drill with bags over participants’ heads, and Weddell seals communicating beneath the ice through noises described (accurately) as sounding like Pink Floyd.
Watching Encounters reminded me of an oft-repeated Herzog quote: “If I opened a film school, I would make everyone earn their tuition themselves by working. Not in an office, but out where there is real life.” And so much the better if you have a camera with you.