A fun part of my prep for the Antarctica trip is watching documentaries on Antarctica. They’re naturally focused on penguins *() and the South Pole, but the German auteur-weirdo Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) was refreshingly different – though if you have watched any Herzog docs, you know he’s going to focus on the fellow-weirdos he meets. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of weirdos in Antarctica!
Over the film’s 99 minutes, Herzog performs an artful bait-and-switch that’s worth the price of the rental. The movie starts by dwelling at length on the ugliness of the American base on McMurdo Sound (he compares it to a mining camp) and the nuttiness of the people who work there – folks who could be working at a small-town gas station. There’s the survival trainer who puts his students’ heads in white utility buckets, leashes them together, and then has them try to find their way around an open snowfield. They can’t. They’d all die in a whiteout blizzard. Less terrifyingly, Herzog talks with a heavy-equipment driver who says with undergraduate profundity, “The universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there are many different ways for reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways.”
After his stay at McMurdo, Herzog gradually goes further and further into the wilderness of Antarctica – true wilderness, devoid of any humans but scientists. He journeys to the lip of perpetually-erupting Mt. Erebus – named for one of the ships sailed to Antarctica in 1839-1843 by the eminent 19th century explorer James Clark Ross – to talk with the volcanologists there. One helpfully offers tips for surviving a rain of lava from the lake below, where the earth’s crust is torn open. (Don’t turn your away from the lava lake: back away it, don’t run from it, so you can see the lava bombs sailing toward you and duck, or maybe contemplate your obliteration.)
Later – or maybe earlier; it’s hard to tell since the film has no real narrative direction – Herzog visits a team of biologists camped on an ice shelf to study the seals that swim, invisible but audible, under them. Some of the researchers gently ambush female seals by covering their heads with a bag and then milk them to analyze their milk – thick like latex paint, amazingly devoid of lactose – and understand how they can possibly perpetuate their species in a place like this. One of the seal-ologists says, almost sheepishly, that the place is so quiet she can hear her heartbeat. Then Herzog films them splaying themselves out on the ice to listen not to their own heartbeats, but to the seals’ otherworldly submarine songs.
That is the sort of arresting image that Herzog loves, and that fills this beautiful film – not empty whitescapes, but nearly empty ones where a trio of researchers crouch on the ice, geologists perch on the rim of a volcano, or a tiny vehicle zooms over the white vacuum , or a diver, taking his last plunge, swims along the sea bed, taking video of the bizarre animals that – unlike the humans – are perfectly at home in this harsh, beautiful place.