Encounters at the End of the World just wasn’t what I thought it would be. Come to think of it, I don’t know what I expected from this film. I did know it had something to do with Antarctica, that it wasn’t about a family of penguins, and that it was directed by Werner Herzog (who is perhaps most recently known for his film, Grizzly Man). I also I knew it was nominated for a “Best Feature Length Documentary” Oscar (I don’t know why I actually bother to use this as a measure of a film’s quality, but, sadly, I still do at times) . And, as reliable as death and taxes, I added it to my queue shortly thereafter. As to be expected, I ended up watching this film a few years after I put it on my queue. Typical me.
Encounters at the End of the World is a documentary that explores Antarctica– only not in the usual way documentaries have explored this continent. In this film, Herzog gives the audience a glimpse of the people who live and work in various settlements and scientific encampments around the frozen land. He interviews several people—from zoologists to plumbers, and from volcanologists (yeah, it sounds like someone who studies Vulcans to me, too) to random inhabitants of McMurdo Station (the largest settlement on the continent). Through these interviews, he explores the work being done in the area and the area itself.
I am quite torn on how I feel about this film. In my opinion, Herzog can be a bit problematic as a documentarian. I realize that all documentaries reflect the bias of the filmmaker, but I like to see at least an attempt at remaining open. Herzog doesn’t always maintain (or make any attempt at maintaining) this objectiveness. Personally, I like documentaries that allow the subjects to speak for themselves, letting their personalities and thoughts come to the forefront. This film does not usually do that. Several times, as the subjects are speaking, Herzog chooses to mute them, and give an account of what they said in his own words. Often, this is done with a snide remark—essentially telling the audience that the subject doesn’t know as much as Herzog does. It just rubs me the wrong way.
He also has a tendency to let the camera dwell on people a few moments too long. One can see how uncomfortable those being filmed are while the camera rolls and nothing being said. Who could blame them– I wouldn’t want to be filmed as I awkwardly wait for the filmmaker to shut off the camera. If this happened once, I would attribute it to an accident; but it happens several times throughout the movie. When a documentary is made, there is a certain amount of trust between filmmaker and subject– each needs to respect the other. Herzog doesn’t seem to have much respect on his end—and even seems to make fun of his subjects at times. Yes, I admit I am being a little hard on him, but this just doesn’t sit well with me.
On the other hand, parts of this film are absolutely beautiful. In particular, the underwater shots are amazing eye candy. These images are not only visually appealing, but also have a beautifully bizarre quality. The shots are like nothing I had ever seen before– people diving under a ceiling of ice several feet thick and around glacial walls. Remarkable.
While not incredibly long, at a little over 100 minutes, this film felt like it dragged on. I will be the first to admit that if I find something irritating early on in a film, it can ruin the entire movie for me. It’s one of my weird idiosyncrasies. And apparently Herzog’s style gets under my skin a bit, because I was getting pretty annoyed. However, when I weigh this against the beautiful images in the film, as well as the interesting approach to examine the people who live and work on Antarctica; I came up with a draw. I would say this is kind of an “enter at your own risk” type of a film. If the subject is up your alley (because the film is quite slow), or if you are a Herzog fan, this may be the film for you. If not, well, maybe stick with TV tonight.
Have a wonderful day!
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