Or Where in the World is Werner Herzog? Once again, the Teutonic filmmaker (Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo, Rescue Dawn) travels to some obscure point of the globe to illustrate his belief that mankind is made up of doomed fools and that nature is unrelentingly cruel. In person, however, he must be one of the most affable misanthropes around. How else to explain the charming array of social misfits he gets to open up to him in this rambling but thoroughly engaging documentary?
Part nihilistic essay, part Antarctic travelogue, Herzog's film once again indulges in his pet obsessions: the savage indifference of nature and the men who seek to live under its extreme conditions. At first, he seems an odd choice for the Discovery Channel to hire, but it soon becomes clear that, even in full-on cynic mode, Herzog can't help but capture the incredible otherworldly beauty of our seventh and least-known continent. Once Herzog travels outside McMurdo Research Station — an ugly industrial complex that he describes as a climate-controlled "abomination" — the footage is nothing short of spectacular. Whether it's towering ice shelves, the strange spider-like creatures that scurry across an icy blue sea floor or a disorienting and ominous volcanic crater, Encounters at the End of the World shows you a landscape that's as intimidating as it is dazzling. Herzog is like a kid in a candy store, whether he's learning that seal's milk is thick and viscous, like melted wax, or chasing down scientists to confirm that man's extinction is just around the corner. "Nature, they predict, will regulate us," he narrates.
Herzog's approach is unfocused and eccentric but relentlessly engaging. Despite his charming but monotonous voiceover, which repeatedly injects a message of doom and gloom, he finds common nobility in McMurdo's workers and scientists, affirming their humanity without irony. From the researchers who sit around watching '50s monster movies to the plumber descended from Aztec royalty (he has the fingers to prove it) to a scientist who can zip herself into a duffle bag, it's an endearing view of society's oddballs from a fellow madman. That they invest so much of themselves to study the planet gives us hope against Herzog's underlying premise that we all, as a species, may be approaching the end of the world.
Still, amid the incredible imagery and weighty themes, Herzog finds opportunities to subvert his Discovery Channel assignment. Whether he's showing us the hilariously humiliating survival training McMurdo visitors must go through or pestering a marine biologist with questions about penguins going insane or being gay, the director proves himself an amusing cinematic poet.
Encounters' most haunting moment is presented as direct rebuttal to the life-affirming March of the Penguins, a film Herzog clearly despises. He focuses on a lone penguin waddling away from its flock toward Antarctica's unforgiving interior. It's a suicidal march that the small bird cannot be dissuaded from making. The scientists explain that even if they were capture and detain it, the penguin would continue on its journey the moment it was released. Is it self-destructive madness or an act of self-expression in defiance of personal cost? I suspect Herzog would find comfort in either answer.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 8 and 9, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 10. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.