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Encounters at the End of the World

Make no mistake about it, Werner Herzog means the title of his documentary both ways.  An inveterate seeker, he has followed the muse of his inexhaustible curiosity right off the map, to Antarctica, to tens of thousands of miles of uncharted ice and deadly white-outs.  There, he interviews an odd assortment of square pegs ("It's like God shook the world, and the normal people hung on, but we wound up down here," says one man).  Most of them are scientists; a few are working men and women.  All of them are eccentric and iconoclastic, ending up at the South Pole as if by migrating along an invisible magnetic line of force.

But Herzog has a second, darker meaning.  He believes that the end of the world - at least as far as the human species is concerned - is both inevitable and immanent.  As his measured, raspy narration argues in the film, our Earth regularly gives us cycles of catastrophe; and our technological civilization, where our tools have separated us from the means of our own survival, have made us fatally fragile.

But here is Herzog, still making movies (this is his 39th), still fascinated by hothouse flowers, by people with a skewed perspective, by brilliant scentist/artist/philosphers chasing down the mysteries of existence.  Not content with having made two of the most important fiction films in cinema - "Aguirre the Wrath of God" (1977) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982)  - Herzog's parallel career as a documentarian has continued without equal.

This is, first, a visually stunning film.  Herzog includes some of the rarest underwater photography you will ever see, which a diver friend captures in the depths beneath the icy sky, down in what he calls "the cathedral" (Herzog says the divers prepare for descent silently, like priests).  The footage is captured merely on video, not film, and some of it is muddy (there is no way a film camera could survive at water temperatures of twenty below zero - the film would crack in the gate like dried spaghetti).  But this is footage we are literally privileged to see. 

The divers talk about the microscopic life they study.  They describe it as a world of unspeakable horrors, where blobs put out tentacles that let you ensnare yourself further as you struggle, and only then "move in to take you apart".  It's the stuff of science fiction; and the dive team leader, an avid SF reader, loves to show apocalyptic movies to his crew.  Herzog says that early animals evolved, struggled up on land, just to get away from the horrifically violent microscopic world.  That, at least, was real progress.

The camera crew races 65 miles across the ice on snowmobiles, way past where poor Shackleton, for personal aggrandizement, was mired and died, to a camp where another group of scientists is studying the reproduction of seals (later, we visit a studier of penguins so lonely he is almost mute).  They are not on land; six feet below where they stand is another hidden world, where the seals go about their mysterious struggles and battles.  The scientists lie down on the ice to listen to the animals.  "They sound inorganic, like Pink Floyd or something," one woman remarks.  Wait until you hear them yourself: banshees on the moor.

While a series like the BBC's "Planet Earth" contains the most breathtaking nature photography ever captured, it is clearly a moneyed series, with an emphasis on pictorial beauty at the expense of context.  Herzog's film is more immediate, more special.  When his camera descends into an ice caldera formed by the expulsion of deadly gasses, and discovers a chamber as if spun of delicate blue glass, it's given a spiritual connotation.

Herzog is the rare philosopher who is balanced neatly between rapture and a poignant love for humanity and all its missed opportunites.  He is fiddling while Rome burns; he knows it; and the tune he plays is heartbreaking in its loveliness.   He's really going to miss us.

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