What Werner Herzog movie couldn’t be called Encounters at the End of the World? From the very beginning of his career, the director has shown an obsession with extreme states of mind and the natural landscapes that reflect them. Whether making fiction or documentaries, Herzog’s concerns remain pretty much identical. While not as top-notch Herzog as the docs Grizzly Man and Lessons of Darkness, Encounters is a big improvement over his recent forays into fiction. With it, he travels to Antarctica in search of the great unknown and finds the depressing presence of the human race instead.
At his worst, as in Fitzcarraldo, Herzog’s movies suggest an ambivalence toward colonialism — indeed, a rapt fascination with the mad conquistadors usually played in his work by the late Klaus Kinski. Herzog seems to think of himself as one of the last of the world’s great explorers. However, if his documentaries’ images are prone to mystic rapture, they’re brought down to earth by his cranky voice-overs. Herzog dislikes much of what he sees in Antarctica and isn’t afraid to tell us about it.
Encounters positions itself against the enormously popular March of the Penguins. Unlike that film, it doesn’t present penguins as family-friendly icons of cuteness. Herzog asks a scientist about gay penguins and finds out that three-ways and even a form of prostitution are not uncommon among the birds. While Encounters is more concerned with people than penguins, it finds a resonant metaphor in the solitary bird who walks away from his herd toward a certain, lonely death in the snow. Were this documentary willing to give human voices to its animals, you can only imagine Kinski speaking for this penguin.
If Grizzly Man stands out as one of Herzog’s best documentaries, its success lies largely in the strength of its use of found footage and the way that the director stages a posthumous interaction with the late grizzly-bear enthusiast and video diarist Timothy Treadwell, whose worldview challenges Herzog’s own. Encounters is a much cozier movie. If Herzog is pissed off by the way people have filled Antarctica with industrial debris and made parts of it look like a particularly ugly rust-belt town, his discomfort never rises to the level of real anger. Encounters captures some moments of underwater beauty, shot by musician Henry Kaiser, but it doesn’t simply luxuriate in them. Herzog’s more interested in people, finding a typical crew of Anarctic eccentrics, including a performance artist who stuffs herself into luggage onstage. He doesn’t push or challenge himself particularly hard here, but Encounters represents the director in a likably benign, comfortable mood. His next step — an apparent remake of Abel Ferrara’s scuzzy 1992 Bad Lieutenant — is far more unpredictable than anything here, although who knows whether it will result in a more watchable movie. •