Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
I recently watched Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about the Antarctica. It is available in snippets on YouTube. Below is part 8 which is a good appetizer (though I think Herzog steps over the line in the last interview). To me, this film is a lesson in documentary film making. The editing is slow and lends the images the time they need to speak for themselves and develop meanings of their own. Also, the interviews take their time to understand the people they are dealing with and skips the usual “this is what he thinks/she thinks, on to the next, approach.” I wrote a piece about it below, but I suggest you start by watching the excerpt — or the whole film! Enjoy…
We flew into the unknown—a seemingly endless void. I was surprised I was even on this plane. The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, were different. I told them I kept wondering: Why is it that human beings put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity?
The German movie director, Werner Herzog, is obsessed with human beings. He wants to understand the psyche of man—his motives, his fears and his dreams—and he wants the world to have room for the characters and the weirdos. The people who most us of call weirdos are the people Herzog call geniuses.
In “Encounters at the End of the World,” Werner Herzog travels to Antarctica to discover the “geniuses” of the southernmost continent. The key theme in the movie is that people are not as they appear to be. This is apparent in his interviews but it also comes across in the formal makeup of the film—in the cinematography and the editing.
One of the first people Herzog interviews is a forklift driver. However, and typically for Herzog, the forklift driver is not just a forklift driver. As the caption explains at the beginning of the interview, the forklift driver is a “philosopher and forklift driver.” He is something more than we initially expected him to be.
This is the key approach of “Encounters at the End of the World.” It is exploring hidden identities and it quickly becomes clear that what we are dealing with is not a movie about Antarctica. It is not “another film about penguins,” as Herzog puts it, but a film about the people living at this weird magnetic place at the end of the world.
Herzog insists that people are more complex and powerful than they appear to be. He talks to the diver and the scientist and he talks to the chef and the bus driver—but he never simple gives us the data. Instead, Herzog insists that there is something more to these people than we initially see and thus the diver does not talk about diving but about his obsession with science fiction. And while the scientist does not speak about his research but about the dreams he has at night, the bus driver talks about a women being chased down by indigenous people in South America with machetes. In “Encounters at the End of the World,” Herzog seems to say that we should look at the people surrounding us afresh.
Werner Herzog in Bruxelles. Photo: Flickr user “Erinc Salor,” via WikiMedia Commons.
This aspect of the film is apparent in its editing as well. In many cases, the movie refrains from cutting when an image has emptied its significance as if implying that we should keep on watching until we find what we have missed. As movie viewers, we have learned to watch movies in a certain way—always expecting a frame to mean something and the movie to cut when that meaning is delivered. This is relating to a technique known in film theory as analytical editing or continuity editing—used in Hollywood par excellence—where a closeup of a face means someone is looking at something and where the next shot will tell us what that person is looking at.
But Herzog does not do this. Instead of using the image to merely deliver a point, as a means of the narrative, he extends the image to insist that it should be interpreted freely. By refraining from cutting as a frame has depleted its meaning, he forces us to keep watching that frame and prompts us to consider that maybe there is more to that image than we were able to see with our narrative eyes. He uses the image as an end in itself.
In “Encounters at the End of the World,” for example, the camera lingers when filming a deserted landscape with just a few odd looking buildings in it. At first, we decode the buildings as “houses on Antarctica,” but as the image is extended and the camera relentlessly holds its focus on the buildings, we begin to see that the landscape resemblances something else. The buildings and the desolate scenery of Antarctica, we see, are as strange and alien as a moon base orbiting the Earth.
Film theorists have developed the notion of excess to talk about these kinds of phenomena. Moments of excess are moments when something falls outside of the narrative of a film—outside the framework that lends the movie its coherence. To the Hollywood school of film making, always devoted to story telling, excess is an error—a disturbing element that alienates the viewer from the dreamworld he is engaging with. But in Herzog’s hands excess becomes a technique deployed to tell us we should not forget to use our eyes and see the things we have learned to forget.
Herzog is what we may call an auteur—a director whose personal and creative vision is present in every work he makes. Take all of Herzog’s films, one might say, his fictional films as well as his documentaries and TV series, and boil them down to their essence; then you will find that the essence in all of them is the same. The auteur, somehow, always leaves a mark on his work as if affirming the idea that there is in fact such a thing as the romanticist, genius artist—what the Germans called “das geniale Ich.”
So even though “Encounters at the End of the world” takes place on Antarctica, this frozen continent to the south is not the theme of the film—Herzog’s obsession with people is. Whether dealing with a deranged animal lover as in “Grizzly Man” (2005), an uncompromising mountaineer as in “Gasherbrum: Der Leuchtende Berg” (1985) or a ski-jumper as in “Die Große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner” (1974), Herzog’s persona is the guiding factor. He wants to understand these people—remarkable for their pursuit of the extraordinaire. What drives a man, Herzog seems to ask in “Gasherbrum,” who devotes his life—and risks it—to stand on top of large hilltops in strange places in the world? And what is it that drives people toward the frozen south? What dreams do they share?
Herzog asks those questions in all of his films, but, as is also the case in “Encounters at the End of the World,” he never questions the dreams themselves. At the end of the world, it seems, also Herzog is looking for answers. And if finding those answers is Herzog’s dream, his lifelong project, then following that dream relentlessly is what puts him in the room with John Ford, Lars von Trier, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and all the other auteurs of the world.