Werner Herzog looks for examples of human madness everywhere, even on the sparsely populated continent of Antarctica. In fact, what likely drew him to the location of his latest documentary was the promise of eccentric residents eager to mug for his camera. He sure didn’t travel to Antarctica for the penguins, as he points out (though he finds a way to impress insanity even onto the bird population), and his admission that a friend’s undersea photos inspired the project isn’t 100% convincing. Herzog’s obsession with personalities who buck the norm didn’t begin and end with his partnership with Kookoo Kinski and their megalomania masterpieces. From Day 1, the man was chasing actual or fictional characters disenfranchised by their oddness, like asylum inmates (Even Dwarves Started Small), fabled shut-ins (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), institutionalized savants (Stroszek), post-traumatic stress cases (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), the fatally hare-brained Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man), and pretty much everyone else Herzog’s put to celluloid so far. You can find a thread of humanity’s individual or collective madness either in the stories he tells or the people he shines his light on. This isn’t mere exploitation; Herzog’s made a career out of proving that madness and alienation are part of the human condition and should be embraced for their meaning, their creativity and, well, for their humanness. Those whom the majority of us consider fringe or unhinged, Herzog argues, are sometimes the most honest of homo sapiens, and they have critical lessons to share.
The lessons many of the personalities in Encounters at the End of the World share with viewers is a popular one: ecosystems are fragile and the human race is doomed. But don’t be fooled. Herzog may dignify his latest doc with climate-change epaulettes, but his real interest is in the people who live at McMurdo and other research stations on the vast ice. It just so happens that many of Antarctica’s residents are scientists funded to study zoology and glaciology — their environmentalist focus is a natural and (no question) important one. But the alarm expressed by some of the scientists is thematically incidental; Herzog’s real investigation is into the mindset of (mostly) privileged middle- and upper-classers who abandoned convenience to live in what he describes as “an ugly mining town” grimed by muddy snow and bulldozers and “a bleak, Motel 6 drabness.” Herzog can appreciate the virgin sublimity of the landscape, but he spends an equal amount of time lamenting the disagreeableness of McMurdo, its hardship and isolation, and the effects it has on inhabitants who may or may not have arrived in Antarctica already a little cocked. The “encounters” of Herzog’s title aren’t so much with seals, invertebrates, and icebergs the size of France, but with the ex-suits, ex-academics, and the working researchers who come together under weather tents and sheds to form a community unlike any other on the planet.
It was only a matter of time before Herzog traveled to the ends of the Earth looking for literal extremes of alienation, but he arrived in Antarctica a few movies too late. Something dislodged in Herzog’s creative spine between the mesmerizing The White Diamond and the disappointing Grizzly Man; the latter, while by no means a failure — and deserving of the attention it (finally) garnered Herzog in North America — is a cut-out of the director’s earlier studies. Grizzly Man is a great doc relative to others, but many fans (I’m not alone) feel it isn’t great relative to what Herzog can do with a subject, a voice-over and a lens. It’s spotted with uncharacteristically weak moments and it’s a little forced, as if Herzog never slid out of the parodic mode he adopted for Zak Penn’s spoof, Incident at Loch Ness, in which he participated as Diamond went into post-production. Herzog carries some of that same accidental parody into Encounters, which contains even more moments forced by narration beyond what they are actually able to convey.
While Treadwell was genuinely extreme, at least (which made up for the film’s other lapses), the human subjects in Encounters lack the intensity, or at least the haunting quality, which Herzog relies on to make points about our condition. A few of them might fit the “unconventional” mold, perhaps, but no one seems distressed as a result of the environment, and most are cheerily well-adjusted. Continental isolation and a mortal climate don’t contribute to anomie or alienation, but instead knit people tighter into their community. Barring a few exceptions, Herzog’s subjects aren’t as interesting as he hopes they’ll be (to the point where even Herzog mocks their chattering), and most of their comments are banalities presented as quirk or insight. Libic the mechanic, for instance, who fled the Eastern Bloc in his youth and keeps a survival rucksack at the ready at all times (in case he needs to fly for freedom again), is a puny knock-off of Dieter Dengler, the ex-POW who kept an apocalyptic food stash in a crawlspace. The ex-banker who busses residents around in the largest vehicle on the continent is about as interesting as a white picket fence, and the penguin expert, Dr. David Ainley, is supposed to be a model of extreme social introversion who’s not extreme enough for the narration’s purpose (and a common enough personality type in academia). Herzog has to prod at his subjects to move them in line with his theme, but all is not lost. He makes the trip worthwhile when he turns to Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist with the same aspect and same fab scarf as Tom “Dr. Who” Baker. There’s also an ex-linguist running a greenhouse who laughs about living in a land without languages. Neither Oppenheimer nor the linguist are forced-dotty like Libic or Ainley — or like the plumber who claims to be descended of Aztec royalty — but they end up being memorable in other ways, like when the linguist observes that “all the people not tied down tumble to the bottom of the planet” (it’s a rare quip that actually bolsters Herzog’s intentions).
With the help of the linguist and a marine biologist, Herzog makes worn claims about how we fight to save a species of tree or plankton, but ignore the collapse of languages and communities. A link is made between ecological and cultural death — which is a pertinent observation. It’s just too bad that it’s an observation National Geographic has been making in every third issue of their magazine since the 80s. Herzog’s desultory achtung-ing doesn’t affect us as it’s supposed to affect us, simply because what he presents as jarring really isn’t anymore. This ramps up the sensation that we’re listening to someone imitating Herzog rather than Herzog himself, and turns our interest away from the environmental thrust of the film, towards that kernel theme of madness-wonderful-madness which, unfortunately, eludes the mic and camera. With nothing but friendly faces and staggering snowscapes left to capture, Herzog soaks the reel with flop-sweat. Metaphors are shoe-horned into scenes, like the comparison of undersea divers to temple priests; it’s a cliché that would capture the essence of a Herzog doc brilliantly if it were to crop up in South Park or The Simpsons, but it’s over-used, and it’s over-the-top even for Herzog when it’s uttered in his famous laconic monotone. His interest in the ice divers and other pros he speaks to reeks of faux fascination, when the subjects in Herzog’s other docs never seem to fail to absorb him.
I’m being extra hard on this film because I’ve wanted to feed Herzog pasta and wine at my table since I was a college student fresh off of a Nosferatu screening. I’ve spent the last 20 years lionizing him in my mind. I still think Herzog is one of the greatest working filmmakers who, until LA rotted his brain in the Aughts, was an adept excelling in both the documentary and fictional forms, and helped to change both forms forever — an outrageous feat. Like Grizzly Man, Encounters is still a solid documentary absolutely worth watching, but it seems as if Herzog, after decades in his craft — like other great documentary filmmakers — is starting to paint by numbers. Rather than add to a body of work by expanding on favorite themes and injecting something fresh into each variation, for Encounters, Herzog pulled a checklist from the pocket of his khakis and brushed off the Amazon silt: sententious observations about our indifferent universe (check); comments about the chaos and destruction humankind can’t help but wreck (check); celebration of dreamers (check); vernacular philosophy nudged out of everymen (check); tribal soundtrack (check); dolorous sighs (check). It’s not oeuvre-building anymore, it’s wheel-spinning. His usual tricks, so effective in other films no matter how recycled they became, ring hollow now and — even worse — come up short. Herzog has begun to mimic himself with a lack of energy I felt from my balcony seat.
If rumor is reliable, Herzog had a tight schedule and no time to vet his interviewees beforehand, which may be why Encounters isn’t as full as his other docs, and why his subjects fail to live up to their purpose. It’s best to find other angles from which to take a view of this movie; perhaps, beyond the re-heated environmentalism and lackluster forays into the psyche, lie insights about filmmaking in challenging environments. Herzog is nearly unequaled as a technician, but his expertise meets its match in the South Pole. The environment takes a toll not just on human skin but on film stock, too, and on creativity itself. It’s a constraining zone where filmmakers rely on others to capture footage they’re not qualified to shoot themselves, like the submarine world that exists under 6+ feet of ice. Much of that footage — and some of Herzog’s own — lacks the pristine quality that normally wrenches our hearts out along with our eyes when we watch his films. For once, Herzog’s lighting isn’t expert. He takes what he can get out of Antarctica and, amid his failures, captures a handful of wonders that sustain our interest: rows of survival trainees wearing buckets on their heads as they grope from shed to shed; the sight of scientists flopped like seals on the ice, listening to seal-song below them; the effects technology has had on exploration; how the end of (terrestrial) exploration was punctuated with the colonizing of Antarctica (this observation is laced with a Teutonic mocking of what adventuring has since been reduced to, like driving backwards across deserts or pogo-sticking up mountainsides). And it’s unlikely viewers will ever forget the segment about the “deranged” penguins who take suicidal runs into the hills, away from the coast — that’s pure Herzog, and that much is authentically absurd. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 21, 2008.)