Film : Antarctica: glimpse of the world's end
"Encounters at the End of the World," German filmmaker Werner Herzog's documentary about his trip to Antarctica, is far from a conventional travelogue. The remarkable and poetic film will play at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Friday, Jan. 9, thanks to the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.
One of the wunderkind of the New German Cinema movement that emerged in the 1970s, Mr. Herzog has long made both fictional and documentary films about eccentric people in exotic parts of the world. His 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man" was a fascinating study of bear whisperer Timothy Treadwell, who lived among Alaskan grizzlies until he and his girlfriend were eaten by one.
As a subject, "Encounters" may not seem quite as dramatic as "Grizzly Man," but its breathtaking cinematography and underlying message prove equally powerful.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Mr. Herzog warns the viewer that he has no intention of seeking out cutesy penguins for his film. Initially attracted to Antarctica through underwater footage taken there by his friend, Henry Kaiser, the filmmaker's fascination hangs on the location's haunting beauty, as well as on the unusual scientists and individuals who gravitate there.
After capturing the viewer's attention with striking underwater footage of a diver swimming next to an ice stalactite, followed by commentary about cowboys, ants, and apes intended to explain his interests, Mr. Herzog moves on to describe his journey to Antarctica's largest community, McMurdo Research Station.
The film's first interview subject is the driver of a giant bus - allegedly the largest vehicle on the continent - that picks up the filmmaker upon landing. A former banker, this man came close to being murdered by suspicious natives during a Peace Corps stint in Guatemala. He is just one of the "professional dreamers" living in Antarctica who are interviewed throughout the film.
Douglas MacAyeal, a University of Chicago glaciologist, explains that ice is a dynamic living entity with the power to produce enormous change worldwide. The iceberg he is studying is so big he says it could run the Nile River for 75 years.
"Certainly, it's going to be frightening to see what happens to these babies when they head north," Dr. MacAyeal says.
Seemingly random tidbits of life in Antarctica follow, including a bird's eye view of McMurdo, looking like "an ugly mining town," and shots of the popular Frosty Boy soft ice cream machine in the canteen. A sequence at "Happy Camper," the survivor school, shows how those who want to go out in the field must first wander around with buckets on their heads to simulate whiteout conditions.
As details of life in Antarctica accumulate, the film's grim message begins to emerge. The phenomena that many of the McMurdo scientists study suggest that human life on this planet may soon be extinct.
This message is accompanied by views of Antarctica's otherworldly landscapes and underwater creatures to striking effect.
Almost from the start, the soundtrack, with its a cappella choir music and Pink Floyd-like seal calls, resembles a requiem mass for the entire human race. Even the scientist-divers, dressing without speaking, "like priests preparing for mass" as Herzog suggests, call their risky explorations into the waters under the ice "going down into the cathedral."
If former Vice President Al Gore's 2006 Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," is a prosaic look at our impending doom, "Encounters at the End of the World" is a lyrical hymn about our extinction.
"Encounters at the End of the World," Friday, Jan. 9, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 ($5 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members). Doors open at 7 pm.
Brooks Robards writes on film, books, and art for The Martha's Vineyard Times.