DVD Review: “Encounters at the End of the World”

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Encounters at the End of the World (2008)
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I had a very odd application.

I had to explain that I was into things like: Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins? And why is it that human beings saddle a horse, and like the Lone Ranger, put on masks in order to disguise their identity and then feel the urge to chase the bad guy? And why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of wild lice in order to milk them like slaves for droplets of sugar? And why is it that a chimp — clearly a superior creature — does not straddle a goat and ride into the sunset?

So does Werner Herzog explain his motivations for the journey that would spawn Encounters at the End of the World, and if you’ve sat down in front of the crusty director’s latest documentary hoping (or fearing) that you were in for another Discovery Channel-esque look at the wonders of life at the bottom of the planet, prepare to have your expectations knocked off their axis. We’ve had a lot of film crews journey to various bits of frozen tundra over the last decade or so, but nobody combines disdain for humanity with a curious spirit quite like Herzog, and his work here is typically, appropriately iconoclastic.

There are no chimps on goats, but Herzog still manages to take viewers places they’ve never been before — both around Antarctica and into the psyches of the people who live and work there. This latter component is really what makes Encounters tick: Herzog arrived at McMurdo Station curious about what would drive a person to seek employment in such unforgiving environs, and between various excursions, he does a fair amount of probing the histories of his hosts. Given Herzog’s career-long love for the exceptional (or exceptionally strange), you might think Antarctica would be the perfect place for him, and you’d be right — pretty much as soon as he steps off the plane, he’s aiming his lens at a pack of characters positively Lynchian in their penchant for the unusual.

Lest you think the animals get short shrift, fear not; actually, they receive some of the most affectionate treatment Herzog has to offer, if only because they aren’t capable of submitting to his legendarily rude interview technique. There’s a fair amount of natural wonder — listening to seal songs (and watching scientists literally put their ears to the ice to hear them) is a particular treat — and believe it or not, Herzog does slake his thirst for knowledge of penguin insanity.

It’s interesting stuff, but how much you enjoy it will have everything to do with your tolerance for Herzog himself. He inserts himself into everything he does with the zeal of Michael Moore and the dry narrative voice of Dieter from Sprockets on Quaaludes, and his frequently misanthropic observations are distracting (at one point, he even complains about sunny weather, sneering, “I hate the sun on my celluloid and my skin”). There’s also the matter of his editing — Herzog is a big fan of shots that linger past the point of discomfort and sequences that continue beyond any obvious purpose. All of which is a highfalutin way of saying that the Herzog novice may find himself getting sleepy while watching Encounters; if you’re looking for a gateway into his work, you’d be better off with something like Grizzly Man.

For fans of the director, however, this is essential stuff, and the DVD comes packed with roughly three hours of extra content — including a commentary track featuring Herzog with producer Henry Kaiser (who, with David Lindley, contributes the movie’s soundtrack), and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, as well as a handful of featurettes. It all moves about as quickly as the glaciers surrounding the crew, but it’s also just as beautiful. Just make sure you’re properly caffeinated.

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