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Encounters at the End of the World

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At this point in his career—46 years as a filmmaker, 54 features and shorts—Werner Herzog has done time in so many inhospitable climes, and celebrated so many fellow loner-obsessives, that you can’t help but wonder whether more trenchant observations might emerge if he and his camera were thrust into, I dunno, some giant Midwestern shopping mall. Ironically, you get an acid taste of that notion early in his latest documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, when Herzog first arrives in Antarctica, seeking extremity as usual, and discovers not the glistening, pristine tundra but a muddy industrial wasteland that resembles Pittsburgh at its ugliest. With Herzog’s bitching about the presence of ATMs and bowling alleys in his familiar Teutonic dirge, the voiceover track is pure comedy gold—so much so that it’s almost disappointing when he finally escapes the McMurdo settlement and ventures into the wild. Once you’ve seen the guy hanging around the mouth of an active volcano (La Soufrière) or lugging a steamship across hundreds of miles of South American jungle (Fitzcarraldo), Antarctica seems downright quaint.

The Details

Encounters at the End of the World
***1/2
Directed by Werner Herzog
Rated G
Opens Friday, August 8
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Encounters at the End of the World
Encounters at the End of the World on IMDb
Encounters at the End of the World on Rotten Tomatoes

Still, even if Encounters lacks the unexpected juxtapositions and plaintive emotional resonance of 2005’s superb Grizzly Man—which was essentially a posthumous collaboration between Herzog and the film’s subject, Timothy Treadwell—this director’s wheelhouse remains a thoroughly engaging place to be. Insatiably curious and wonderfully tactless, Herzog strolls about asking the questions you never hear in the PBS-style docs, wondering aloud whether penguins ever go mad (the disturbing answer: yes) and prodding everyone at McMurdo, from research scientists to forklift drivers, about their motivation for seeking out such a desolate expanse. Along the way, he finds images of unearthly beauty and surreal comedy—the former courtesy of underwater photography by Henry Kaiser, the latter exemplified by a group of trainees wandering blindly through an artificial blizzard simulated by the placement of a big white bucket, complete with custom-designed cartoon face, on each person’s head. Despite its title, Encounters at the End of the World doesn’t dwell on the continent’s disintegrating ice shelves, but the visual metaphor of those flailing bucketheads says everything that’s needed.

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