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Encounters with Werner Herzog, continued: Encounters at the End of the World

WILLIAM MCBRIDE: If Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is the story of a man who suffers from the inadequacy of ordinary existence, Encounters at the End of the World presents equally restless souls, who instead turn their burning energy to the pursuit of new knowledge.

The people we meet ‘at the end of the world’ – that is, Antarctica – have dedicated their lives to probing the very threshold of human understanding.

There are two stars of this awesome film: the people who bind together to form Antarctica’s peculiar demographic, and the beautiful and asphyxiating abyss into which they stare.

Herzog’s day-to-day setting for Encounters is McMurdo Station, an American research centre built at the edge of the Ross Sea ice shelf. McMurdo’s inhabitants described their home as, variously, a “natural selection of people with a desire to jump off the margins of the map,” and a place “where you can find PhDs washing dishes and linguists on a continent with no language.” The characters we meet through Herzog’s interviews each have extraordinary tales to share with the camera, of travel, danger or exotic heritage.

But forever pulling focus is the bracing, demanding and omnipotent continent. Antarctica is treated by Herzog and by the scientists he interviews as a living organism with an agenda: “a living being, that’s dynamic, that’s producing change, change that it’s broadcasting to the rest of the world.”

There are many remarkable sequences to the film. In one, Herzog focuses on the march of a lone penguin that, shunning its colony, has chosen to travel directly inland to its certain death. At another point we follow a journey through long ice tunnels to the mathematically precise South Pole, where we discover a shrine of oddly discreet human artefacts (pop-corn, a picture of New Zealand, greeting cards and a frozen Sturgeon). But one moment in the middle of the film moved me more than any other.

Herzog was motivated to film Encounters after seeing footage shot by his friend, the musician Henry Kaiser, of the mysterious sea life underneath the Ross Sea ice shelf. In this film, he revisits that strange alien world.

As divers prepare meticulously for their un-tethered descent into the minus two-degree water, Herzog observes that they are like priests preparing for mass, and a mood of solemnity and reverence does indeed prevail. “Under the ice,” the director says, “the divers find themselves in a separate reality where space and time acquire a strange new dimension. Those few who have experienced the world under the frozen sky often speak of it as ‘going down into the Cathedral’.”

Watching these silent divers drifting, dwarfed by the scale and the beauty of this alien world, it becomes clear that they must possess minds of the greatest imagination and bravery. Under the ice we see blazing fluorescent anemone, delicate complex jellyfish, and spindly-legged starfish. We see beautiful pillars of ice. And at the Cathedral’s ceiling, we see bubbles of air, exhaled from the divers, race towards each other, not knowing how long until they may escape into the atmosphere once again.

Herzog couples this footage with a penetrating chant of throaty female voices that provoked in me my most primal fears and desires. Here, I thought, is perhaps a place where the dead might come for an obliterating, ultimate reflection.

Herzog’s documentary style is unorthodox. He often manipulates his interview subjects, steering them towards a more lively, theatrical retelling of their story (and occasionally actual re-enactment); he will then let his camera linger on them for a few moments longer than they had anticipated, until they seem to ‘break character’. He unapologetically situates himself in the middle of his stories and, from time-to-time, he will offer startling declarations of his personal philosophies: in Grizzly Man, he declares, in reaction to Treadwell’s view of nature as something harmonious and pure, that “the common character of the universe, is not harmony but chaos, hostility, and murder.” In Encounters, he says: “Many of [the researchers] express grave doubts about our long-ranging presence on this planet. Nature, they predict, will regulate us.”

“Human life,” he says, “is part of an endless chain of catastrophes.”

But if these extraordinary statements about humankind’s inherent propensity to violence and destruction reveal one side of Herzog’s worldview, there is another side that revels in the most awesome streaks of human nature.

Herzog closes his film with a word from ‘philosopher and forklift driver’ Stefan Pashov. Paraphrasing the American philosopher Alan Watts, Pashov says: “Through our eyes, the Universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the Universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the Universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

The Barbican Film’s Herzog ‘director-spective’ was part of a larger celebration of the auteur’s work, run by V22 arts collective.



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2010-03-02 11:42:33
I am a huge fan of Herzog and really enjoyed 'Grizzly Man' I can't wait to check this out - the silent divers scene sounds amazing

2010-03-04 01:21:26
It's a great film! (Are you spam, Gift Subscriptions?)

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