Another extraordinary documentary essay from Werner Herzog, who announces quite early on, in his characteristically slyly deadpan way, that his intention in traveling to Antarctica for the Discovery Channel was definitely not to make another movie about penguins. The little black-and-white critters do in fact appear fairly late in “Encounters at the End of the World,” but leave it to this most idiosyncratic and driven of directors to find one like himself and so many of his earlier protagonists—obsessive itself. It’s a penguin that a researcher describes as simply disoriented, but in his inimitable way Herzog suggests that it may rather be insane and suicidal, waddling toward distant mountains in the interior where it will surely die, purposefully rather than by unhappy accident. Herzog also inquires of the researcher whether there might be homosexual penguins or penguin prostitution.
Those are precisely the sort of quirky queries one would expect of the filmmaker, but the other side of the equation is the character of the researcher he’s talking to—a man who’s spent so many solitary years studying the penguin colony that he’s barely accustomed to talking with other human beings anymore. As the film makes clear repeatedly, Herzog went to Antarctica not only to view the continent with very different eyes from most documentarians who have visited it—like those who made “March of the Penguins”—but also to talk with those unusual souls who, like that penguin researcher, have chosen to abandon “civilization” for the solitude and mystery of the southernmost part of the globe.
What Herzog encounters, therefore, is really twofold. On the one hand, he experiences—and conveys to us with his images and words—the ice-covered territory (and the ghostly waters beneath the ice), darkly observing how human settlement, particularly at the large McMurdo research station, has created something entirely foreign while offering a brief but pointed precis of earlier exploration. (His remarks about such abominations as ATMs at the camp are grimly hilarious, and when he introduces a “Dairy Queen”-like ice-cream dispenser in the lunchroom called Frosty Boy, and emphasizes the enthusiasm of the denizens for it, he’s glutting himself on the accidental irony.)
But it’s the people who make the film really memorable. There’s Herzog’s friend (and the picture’s producer) Henry Kaiser, an underwater photographer whose shots of the strange creatures encountered under the ice are among its most remarkable. And the driver of a huge, tank-like bus who talks of previously being both a banker and a Peace Corps volunteer. A stockman who’s a philosopher. A linguist who raises vegetables in a hothouse while discoursing on the death of little-spoken languages and the strangeness of coming to a place where there’s no indigenous language at all. A plumber who talks about his royal Aztec heritage. A British volcano expert who wears tweeds to honor his predecessors. A refugee from communist Eastern Europe who always keeps a bag packed for immediate departure. A woman who describes her unusual travels, including a trip on a flatbed truck inside a sewer pipe, and then does a trick involving contorting herself to fit into a piece of luggage. A biologist studying single-cell creatures who enjoys showing old apocalyptic movies to his crew, including “Them!” about giant ants.
And, as odd as all are, Herzog himself—a kindred spirit who’s traveled about the world observing the peculiarities of human life and capturing them, affectionately and without condescension, on film, sometimes fictional and sometimes not. For a time, after his arthouse successes of the 1970sm his films were largely ignored. But with the fascinating “Grizzly Man” from 2005, he rebounded into the public consciousness, and his reemergence should continue with this effort. It may not be quite accurate to call Herzog a documentary filmmaker: he approaches his subjects with firm views that he’s quite open about expressing, in a wry, throwaway fashion, and one always gets the feeling that he’s shaping the material to address his own obsessions. But the result is nonetheless extraordinary. “Encounters at the End of the World” is at once haunting and surprisingly engaging, a unique vision of a unique place and of the people crazy or dedicated enough (or both) to devote themselves to it.