Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog, the great, visionary, German director is like a poet with a movie camera. He’s responsible for such classics as Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man. He directs just as many feature films as documentaries, and he never lets a studio influence his vision. He is a true auteur.

Herzog is a filmmaker who continually looks for a challenge. He isn’t a thrill seeker, he is just a man who enjoys testing his limits, regardless of his age. He’s moved a 300 ton boat over a mountain, climbed into an active volcano, swam in the ferocious waters of Thailand, walked from Berlin to Paris barefoot, eaten his own shoe and so on. He has no problem fusing fiction in his documentaries and bringing truth to his features. When he had finished his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly he told his star, Dieter Dengler, that the story wasn’t over. Ten years later Herzog revisited the story with the fictional film, Rescue Dawn. Rescue Dawn is a better film that Little Dieter, even though it’s considered fiction, it’s the Herzog vision that propels it to a classic.

His latest venture into the unknown is the miraculous Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog was fascinated with the people who live in Antarctica, so he flew down, with only his cameraman, to get these people’s stories. While there, he comes across a village that looks like a small, mid-Western town with a lot of snow. They have a bowling alley, a grocery store, and an ice-cream machine. Herzog, no fan of commercialized intervention, is repulsed by this place, so he quickly makes the effort to travel farther, to find the real eccentrics.

The stories in this documentary film are heartbreaking. In one scene, Herzog talks with a man who cannot describe his past or why he left his country. He tries to speak, but he gets too choked up, tears flush from his eyes, “You don’t have to talk about it,” Herzog says with this tender voice, “Thank you,” the man says, and the scene ends.

There is a general theme from the people we meet in the film. Most of them were tired of the busy life, they are escaping to find themselves. These are people with Ph.D’s and very specific, academic skills that they now rarely use. Herzog fits right in.

The film is scored with Herzog passionate narration, and hauntingly fitting music that sounds like a grand German opera. When we go underwater to explore the vast glaciers and hidden sea creatures, Herzog lets the images speak for themselves. And believe me, these fluid images speak volumes (can a documentary be nominated for best cinematography?).

Encounters at the End of the World may be Herzog’s most poetic film yet, a bold statement seeing as how I am such an admired fan of his. Let this scene prove my point. Because this is Antarctica, Herzog dedicates a few moments to a flock of penguins. At one point, some of the flock decides to head in a new direction to gather food. One of them branches off and heads directly for a mountain, miles away. Herzog explains that he was told to never interfere with the life of a penguin. Although he has no idea, this lone penguin is walking to certain death,. He is just curious, wandering into the unknown. At one point, the penguin looks back at us, ready to turn. Instead he turns right back around and heads toward the mountain. The image is haunting, visceral and heartbreaking. I’d expect nothing less from one of cinema’s great creators. A

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