Encounters at the End of the World: The Best Documentary Ever?

Antarctica by Ronald Woan. CC BY-NC 2.0

Imagine you just experienced beauty so sublime that you were struck dumb: all reasoning processes shut down, and all you could do was stand and stare. Then imagine that you had to put that encounter into words. That is my task, as I attempt to review one of the best documentaries ever: Encounters at the End of the World.

Written, narrated, and directed by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World (2007) details the filmmaker’s trip to Antarctica. Encounters is especially focused on the people Herzog met; and, of course, the majesty of the frozen continent.

Synopsis

Almost immediately, Herzog lets viewers know that Encounters will not be a typical documentary.

While the film’s first shots are of the mesmerizing world beneath the sea ice, the setting quickly switches to the interior of a crowded plane. One sees scientists and other highly-qualified individuals sleeping on the floor and snoring with their mouths open, which is an unusually humble way to portray experts.

Furthermore, Herzog explicitly states that he’s not interested in normal questions about nature. The topics Herzog is curious about are deeper, more philosophical, and largely focused on behaviors that he finds puzzling – among both humans and animals.

These different, sometimes odd questions set Encounters apart from every other documentary, and they become a major part of the film once Herzog’s plane lands in Antarctica.

Once the plane touches down, Herzog is temporarily confined to McMurdo Station. Herzog explores this noisy, crowded, and muddy base, interviewing anyone with an interesting story. This not only includes scientists, but also bus drivers, forklift operators, cooks, and more; no one is too insignificant to escape Herzog’s inquisitive nature.

Part of McMurdo Station: The United States’ main base on Antarctica. IMG_2703 by Bryan Kiechle. CC BY-ND 2.0

Unfortunately for Antarctica’s human inhabitants, Herzog is eventually unleashed upon the continent to bother field researchers wherever they may be.

The Genius of Encounters

Why do I say that Encounters at the End of the World is one of the best documentaries ever?

Part of the answer is what the film doesn’t have: there’s no fake drama, no stupid scenes of otters “dancing” to cha-cha music, no Indiana Jones wannabes, and no one body-slamming wildlife. There’s just an unspeakably beautiful continent, an intelligent and witty narrator who asks insightful questions, and some of the most interesting people in the world – and that’s enough.

Furthermore, Encounters’ interviews are exceptional.

Interviews

Herzog’s interviews are another one of Encounters’ strong points. As I’ve eluded to, he asks questions that catch people off guard and make them think.

Herzog also asks personal questions: ones that concern important moments in interviewees’ lives, or that explore their individual journeys. This is refreshing, and touches on an essay that I wrote for The Revelator.

The best parts of Herzog’s interviews, however, are when he says nothing.

During interviews, Herzog sometimes lets the camera linger on his interviewees without saying a word; it’s both amusing and humanizing to watch these poor souls stammer to fill the void, or turn away uncomfortably. After all, haven’t we all experienced awkward silences?

Metaphors

Along with avoiding stupidity and having great interviews, Encounters features a number of profound metaphors. One of these metaphors concerns “deranged” penguins.

Yes, of course there are penguins in Encounters at the End of the World. Antarctica by Tak. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At one point, Herzog interviews a penguin expert who uses words sparingly. Herzog asks if penguins ever get fed up with their colonies and go crazy, at which point the scientist explains that they sometimes get “disoriented.”

Encounters then features a sequence of shots of penguins losing their ways, refusing to go towards the coast or their colonies, but instead heading for Antarctica’s mountainous interior – towards certain death. Herzog explains that if one were to catch one of these disoriented penguins and bring them back to their colonies, they’d immediately head straight for the mountains.

When I watched this sequence, I couldn’t help but see a connection between these penguins and the humans on Antarctica.

Towards the beginning of Encounters, one of Herzog’s interviewees says that Antarctica – the most inhospitable continent for human life – is a meeting place for those with a desire to “jump off the edge of the map.” Is this not like the penguins, who, upon becoming disoriented, rush towards a place where they cannot survive?

Moving though such metaphors are, they are not the most significant aspects of Encounters.

The World Under the Frozen Sky

The most incredible sequences of Encounters at the End of the World have no dialogue at all. They consist of shots of Antarctica’s underwater environment, “the world under the frozen sky,” and they’re coupled with hauntingly beautiful music.

The power of these scenes transcends human language, and demonstrates why Antarctica must be protected from exploitation for all time.

The most emotional, moving scenes in Encounters make the business of allowing tourists to set foot on Antarctica seem highly questionable. Among the Gentoo Penguins, Shetland Islands, Antarctica by Scott Ableman. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Closing Thoughts

The word “masterpiece” is thrown around a lot, and often undeservedly. Despite this, Encounters at the End of the World is a true masterpiece. It is the most fitting tribute to the most unique continent on Earth, and the benchmark to which all other nature documentaries should aspire.

For this reason, Encounters at the End of the World goes all the way to eleven.

Final Rating: 11 out of 10.

14 Thoughts

  1. This looks fantastic, Josh. I love the metaphor, too. In a million years, the notion of how humans visiting Antarctica never would have occurred to me until you pointed it out. The name of that continent alone is….well, anti. A place for humans to avoid and a place where animals there should be able to live without exploitation. I wonder how much human influence has on the penguins becoming disoriented, if any.

    Awesomely written.

    ~K

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kara! I didn’t get the penguin metaphor at first either; it wasn’t until the second time I watched the film that I began to understand why Herzog may have spent so much time on the disoriented penguins. However, I also wonder if he wasn’t trying to make a more general statement about “madness:” people getting tired of society’s B.S. and losing their minds.

      Yes, Antarctica should always remain a global holy place, set aside for wildlife and non-exploitative scientific research. I’m fine with journalists and artists going to Antarctica – as long as they contribute meaningfully to the work being done there – but I’m very uneasy about the possible effects of Antarctic tourism. The last thing we need is a bunch of litter piling up on Antarctica, or tourists harassing animals for selfies.

      Liked by 1 person

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