Werner Herzog is a magnet for obsessives, and his lovely new film, Encounters at the End of the World, takes you places an ordinary documentary filmmaker might've gone to yet missed completely.
At the invitation of the National Science Foundation, Herzog traveled to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, a U.S.-run enclave of 1,100 men and women who study the physical environment. We spend time with ecologists, biologists and survival-school instructors who teach people how not to get lost in a blinding snowstorm. We meet Stefan Pashov, listed in the press materials as "philosopher, forklift driver." That describes Herzog as well: His films have utility as well as transcendence.
Herzog went to McMurdo, he tells us in stern, comically methodical voice-over, "even though I would not come up with another film about penguins." Maybe not, but Herzog's camera focuses movingly on the plight of one little flightless wonder, wandering away from the gang, destined to die while following his instincts.
The scientific evidence being gathered at McMurdo points in the direction, according to Herzog (and many others), of ecological disaster, borne of global warming and political indifference. In the stories of the people, in the frozen landscapes, Encounters reminds us of life's precariousness.
His side-winding, slyly observant portrait of a makeshift, oddball community reminds us, too, that the planet is made up of such communities.
Herzog dedicates it to Roger Ebert; beyond that, it is dedicated in spirit to anyone who ever threw one life away to find another, near or far, searching for answers.
Michael Phillips writes for the Chicago Tribune.
See a preview of Encounters at the End of the World at baltimoresun.com/encounters
Encounters at the End of the World
(ThinkFilm) A documentary by Werner Herzog. Rated G. Time 99 minutes.