At the precise magnetic location of the South Pole, at the end of a long rectangle of a tunnel carved through the ice, is a frozen sturgeon. In his new documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog shows us this fish, noting that the -70 degree temperatures in the tunnel may preserve the sturgeon for future alien archaeologists after other vestiges of long-past human civilization have crumbled. What will they make of us? What drives people to plant flags in the last, remote areas of the Earth? And do penguins go insane?
Herzog, director of Grizzly Man, narrates his surprise that the National Science Foundation funded his rare trip to Antarctica, even though he let them know these were the kinds of questions he was interested in asking. I saw the film a few days ago, when it closed out the Independent Film Festival Boston, so I warn that my recollection of certain details is hazy. The film has the same beauty and some of the same bleakness as Grizzly Man. I have only seen these two movies of Herzog's, both of which show a complicated vision of man's place in nature (a word Herzog would pronounce with some German-accented scare-quotes).
On the one hand, Antarctica is a world of magical, inhuman beauty. He shows us a scuba diver's bubble trail coalescing where ocean meets ice; a lone, deranged penguin waddling down the ice not towards food but towards the mountains, where Herzog assures us it will meet certain death; an unnamed, jelly-like, luminescent tube pulsating through the water. We hear the creaking of the ice and the clicking, whirring underwater noises of seals, which a researcher can only compare to Pink Floyd.
On the other hand, Herzog implies, we have made Antarctica into yet another stage for acting out our own absurd geopolitical and personal farces. Spliced in with his footage of the drifters, scientists, and drifter-scientists populating the south pole are a few minutes of footage of a man who's trying to break a world record on every continent by somersaulting or walking miles with a glass bottle on his head. Herzog is dismayed by the construction sites at the big base on the continent. The romantic in him wishes there were still someplace left on the Earth that remained unsullied by our antics and unspeared by our flags.
The dinosaurs' time was limited, and so will be ours. Mankind, he intones, is one of a series of catastrophes upon the Earth.
But in Herzog's vision of Antarctica, where there's death, there's life--and art. While people may be absurd, down way south, every construction worker is a dreamer, every scientist an artist. (Just as the cliché holds that the waiters in Los Angeles all dream of being actors, in Herzog's Antarctica, everyone is an amateur philosopher.) Herzog talks to a researcher who studies the movements of the sea ice that will melt as a result of cataclysmic climate change--and also to a diver-biologist looking for the origins of life itself. The biologist shows video of single-celled organisms that encase themselves in beautiful branching structures made from particles they pluck from the water, seeming to choose grains purposefully. A nice metaphor for the artist.
Towards the end of the film, one of the continent's many philosophers, a sparkle in his eye, quotes Alan Watts. (I may have that name wrong.) Through us, he said, the universe observes itself. Herzog does not answer his question about what drives us to plant flags. Perhaps more satisfyingly, he closes with a collage of beautiful, strange sounds and images, including a glimpse from under water up at hole in the ice that suggests both the camera lens and the universe's eye.