Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who isn't content to simply place his stamp on each of his films, he has to grind it in with the heel of his boot, making sure there is no mistake that what we're about to see, whether fictional narrative or documentary, is his vision, his unique take on the subject matter.
His latest endeavor, the documentary ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD is no different. The narration in the first few minutes makes clear Herzog has little interest in "another fucking penguin picture." His interest lies as much in the days and dreams of the people living there as it does the beautiful scenery. At first he's troubled by relatively benign weather; it's only when the winds start to come up that he truly feels it's time to explore the continent.
The photography is breathtaking. I understand the accolades heaped upon films like PLANET EARTH, but there's a immediacy to the HD video in ENCOUNTERS that causes you to reach out, straining to feel the cold emanating from the screen. The most gorgeous moments come under the ice, as divers bring the cameras for a look at the alien architecture made possible by the movement of the water and the ice, and the strange life that calls this environment home.
When he's not lingering over the vistas and the indigenous life, Herzog is probing the people who have, for dozens of different reasons, followed a singular call to come to the most inhospitable section of the globe. From a plumber who boasts royal Incan heritage to a group of scientists who put their ears to the ice in order to hear the psychedelic, inorganic sounds of the seals,each person parts with a small portion of the dream that led them to the ice and snow. Herzog's voice, sometimes probing, sometimes backing off, always seems to be in command, and as an invisible guide he makes a compelling voice through the course of the film.
Of course, he eventually does (as one must when in Antarctica) come across penguins, and what started in the beginning of the film as a casual joke about another penguin movie becomes a heartbreaking scene as the question of madness in animals is addressed. It's one of many beautiful moments that make ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD a treasured film.
*Quick Note: Herzog states his fascination with Antarctica came after seeing some of the dazzling underwater photography by Henry Kaiser while Kasier was scoring Herzog's previous GRIZZLY MAN. It took a couple moments to sink in: the guy doing the music for Herzog's film also shot underwater footage in Antarctica? Apparently so, and the guy in question, Henry Kaiser, is a fantastic guitar player who's records are a treat of jazz, rock, and more avant-garde material. It's his picture in the above screencap.