Encounters at the End of the World (2008) Review

By Daniel Good

As Werner Herzog informs us in his opening sequence, this is no ordinary film about Antarctica. Whilst this film seeks to show us the beauty of the continent alongside the incredible research that is undertaken there, Herzog’s focus lies firmly within his human subjects.

It becomes apparent that although people move to Antarctica in the name of discovery, most of what they find is within themselves, people are almost born again here, their Antarctic life all too often juxtaposing that which they left behind. Encounters at the End of the World craves the curiosity and eccentricity that Herzog bought us in his earlier films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Stroszek; a plunge into the ice cold waters of lives all too distant from our own.

One of the encounters we least expected was with two scientists/blues musicians who perform a gig atop their lab/shack. Seeing these two performing their music to nobody but the great white nothingness gives us an overwhelming sense of the freedom that these men have, they are not constricted by the confinements of the Western world. Herzog introduces us to the world of Libor Zicha, a man who lived as a prisoner behind the Iron Curtain, his sole attraction to Antarctica is the freedom which it brings. His entire life is neatly folded into a backpack, this includes a tent, cooking utensils and a raft; he is ready at any point to leave, should he need to.

Probably the most striking moment comes from a penguin, who is caught marching towards certain death, as he strays away from his colony towards mountains about seventy kilometres away. We discover that should the scientists intervene and reunite the penguin with his colony he will only try and head for the mountains again.

Though a film about the natural world would usually rely heavily on scenes of nature to captivate us, Herzog sidelines this, allowing the real surprises to be found in his encounters with those who have found solace there; an uncharacteristically optimistic film from one of the world’s finest filmmakers.

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