Imagine someone pays for you to go to the Antarctic and make a documentary. Dramatic, beautiful vistas, as pure as the mathematics of air flow and crystallization, which your viewers won’t have seen for themselves. Extraordinary cold. Cliffs of ice. Danger. Explorers enduring unimaginable hardship in the name of science. Penguins. What a nightmare. Where could you possibly start? How could you avoid all the above clichés without ignoring everything that is recognizably Antarctic?
By force of character. That, at least, seems to be Werner Herzog‘s method, except insofar it seems to me that every recent film of his could be subtitled In Search of Another Klaus Kinski. At the beginning of Encounters at the End of the World he tells us he’s not interested in penguins but in the dreams of the people there, and in man’s relationship with other species. He shows us a painting of a chimpanzee on goatback contemplating a ride across Monument Valley. His first interview is with the man who drives the huge bus that runs from the airstrip where he lands to the filthy, shattered landscape of McMurdo Station. He gets to the penguins eventually, by way of an awkward and taciturn penguin expert: a question about penguin insanity leads to a bleakly hilarious contemplation of penguins that inexplicably turn their backs on the sea and march alone directly for the dead heart of the continent.
It helps that Herzog is friends with Henry Kaiser, who is both an avant-garde guitarist and a research diver, who supplies him with footage of diving under ice that almost had me dribbling with wonder – it’s also used to stand in for an alien planet in Herzog’s science fiction confection The Wild Blue Yonder. And his main cameraman, Peter Zeitlinger, manages to get astonishing footage while evidently crawling on elbows and knees through narrow gaps inside hollow ice formations that have condensed around vents leaking hot gases from the highly active volcano Mount Erebus. “It is safe to go inside,” Herzog informs us, “as long as it is not one of those containing poisonous gases.” Zeitlinger doesn’t try, though, to repeat the attempt, shown on archive film, to go down to the magma lake inside Erebus’ crater on ropes.
We do get dreams, and a whole lot of misfits that Herzog presents for us, though not always politely; he doesn’t try to hide either his delight or his annoyance with the personalities he encounters. And along the way we also get the stunning landscapes, etc etc, but by way of saying something far less definite and more profound than you find in any other Antarctic film you’re likely to see, let alone in the countless sci-art projects that have been turned out in recent years by writers and artists on a polar jolly.