More noise than signal

Encounters at the End of the World

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

It’s hard to know quite what to make of Werner Herzog. While there’s no doubting that the man makes some interesting films, I sometimes wonder if we’re appreciating them the way he’d want us to. Take this ‘ere latest outing, for example. There’s moments that sent peels of laughter through the audience, although it’s in response to questions asked in so deadpan a fashion I wonder if that was quite what we were supposed to be doing.

As always, I’m rather getting ahead of myself. This follows Herzog as he’s asked by the National Science Foundation to head to the McMurdo base at the South Pole to document, well, whatever takes his fancy, really. What takes his fancy initially is the very pretty footage take from deep sea ice divers from the waters underneath the ‘berg that the base floats on, but soon turns to volcanoes and wildlife, but more frequently Herzog chooses to get all up in the grill of the people who would choose to live their lives, even in part, in a place where the sun doesn’t set for five months of the year.

The thing with Herzog, or at least my thing with Herzog, is that I find it difficult to tell if some of the questions he’s asking come from a position of respect or if they’re laced with sarcasm, and the poor scientists he’s bothering seem equally unsure of what the chap’s angle is. Imagine being, by all accounts, a taciturn, quiet chap who’s now devoting his life to studying a penguin colony in one of the most remote parts of the world, who even then attempts to mimimise contact with these bebothersome humans, only to have Werner pop up one day, shove a camera in your face and ask you if there are any gay penguins, and if there have been any instances of penguins going insane.

You would, perhaps, be forgiven for slugging him in the mouth, and there’s a few other points where had this been produced by anyone other than Herzog you’d be convinced that he’d travelled to an ice shelf for the express purpose of taking the piss out of a bunch of scientists and journeyman travelers who have decided to head off to the white wastes.

But, it is Herzog, and so we always remember that he’s only a few steps off being sectioned at the best of times, and cut him some slack. I’m sure he couldn’t force three zoologists studying seal physiology to lie on the ice shelf and pretend to hear seal songs, so I guess there’s no harm and no foul. It’s pretty damn funny to look at, though.

If you actually need a point to exist in a film to watch it, then this isn’t really the place to go looking. At the outset Werner says he headed out there to answer a few questions that he seemed to instantly forget about, so that’s a bit of a wash. Instead, he looks at some interesting characters and returns briefly to his favourite theme of “We’re all doomed, to nigh on immediate extinction”. Even with his best attempts to drag our spirits down, the film is infused with so much of Herzog’s quirky sensibility that it makes it very difficult not to walk out of this film substantially happier than you were when you walked in. It may not be the most informative documentary you’ll ever see in your life, but it stands a decent chance of being one of the more interesting and entertaining ones.