Encounters at the End of the World
Encounters at the End of the World: review
Herzog’s conviction that one must travel inside if one really wants to touch upon the depthless mysteries of nature, and the place of humans within it, is crucial to his vision of Antarctica. Indeed, one of the film’s hallucinatory highlights comes when Herzog has to crawl through a set of dark, narrow tunnels that have been cut through the ice and rock—the camera as low to the ground as it can be, the soundtrack full of mumbling and huffing as everyone makes their way through the cramped passages. It’s a surprisingly resonant image, the struggle and difficulty of humanity’s basic existence as it attempts to navigate its fascinating and ultimately unconcerned habitat; and it’s a resonance that emerges not from grand allegorical imposition, but from the supposedly neutral process of observation and documentation.
This obsession with the interaction between humanity and nature, between technology and landscape, is the stuff of high Romanticism, and its inheritance is something that Herzog, good German that he is, has been decisively formed by, however sardonic his own brand of it is and however seemingly conventional its packaging. Encounters at the End of the World exemplifies how a typically pedestrian mandate such as that of the Discovery Channel can be transformed by subtle shifts in emphasis, by unexpected prolongations and ruminations and sharp, striking insights. Some TV viewers may tune in expecting more penguins; what they get instead is a portrait of people in search of the sublime.