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ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (director/writer: Werner Herzog; cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger; editor: Joe Bini; music: Henry Kaiser/David Lindley; cast: Werner Herzog (Narrator); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Henry Kaiser; ThinkFilm; 2007)
“Amazingly decent documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

For this amazingly decent documentary, eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”/”Rescue Dawn”/”The White Diamond”) journeys during the five month summer period (where there’s no night) to the earth’s southernmost point at Antarctica to learn some things about cutting-edge science and in the process made this viewer that much smarter. Herzog arrives at McMurdo Station, the headquarters of the National Science Foundation, where over 1000 people live on top of the massive ice chunks in the Ross Sea in what looks like an ugly mining site filled with the noise of heavy equipment vehicles and temporary housing with modern conveniences and climate-control. For the first time an outsider has been given access to the facility, and Herzog gives us a sharp Herzogean narration and introduces us to a varied international group of brooding scientists, unusual laborers and soulful adventure-minded travelers who are there risking their sanity and lives for the cause of science. The scientist who talked about the neutrinos being the mysteries of life we still don’t understand, gave the most vivid explanation I have ever encountered of the neutrino and why it’s so important for us to know about it.

Though “Encounters” follows along the lines of a Discovery Channel documentary (it was financed by the cable network), it separates itself from the usual science documentary by adding incredibly rare stunning images, exciting interviews with a bunch of quirky researchers and an interview with a kooky Apache plumber who is proud of his ancient Aztec and Inca inheritance. Through these interviews the film adequately gives us the explorer feeling of getting high over being in such a remote spot where there’s an energy given off from the beautiful barren ice-capped landscape and the like-minded curious people who would come to work at the end of the world–where there’s no more south to go to–who are attempting to find life’s mysteries in such a primitive and harsh world in a place that might be viewed as another planet.

Herzog takes us to the field where we observe the scientists at work: whether studying the mating habits of the docile Weddell seals so that we can learn how they survive in such a difficult climate and lose weight by the milk they drink or volcanoes or the discovery of three new species during one day. The filmmaker also takes us to a unique survival training regimen that newcomers are required to take before allowed permission to go out onto the field.

The director is his usual idiosyncratic self and has the film fly by with a whirlwind tour of the Antarctica, that had more than just a look at glaciers or penguins (Herzog questions if there are gay penguins, or prostitution and insanity among them, and gets some surprising answers). It might not always be focused but in the end it adds up as a spicy study of anthropology and a reaffirmation of Herzog’s belief of how dreamers are society’s odd ones who find the most to live for even if they are not always appreciated by others.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”