Werner Herzog is one of the earth's disappearing natural resources: a filmmaker of boundless energy, curiosity, and passion who for 45 years has pursued his craft at an indifferent remove from the bustle of awards ceremonies and box-office returns. His 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, represented the perfect confluence of found object (footage shot by half-mad grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell in the months leading up to his death) with the sensibility of the finder. Herzog's driving obsession, in both his feature and documentary films, has always been the elusive boundary between nature and culture. He loves stories about implacable landscapes (the jungle, the desert, the oil fields of Kuwait) and the men who try—in vain but with an absurd nobility—to tame them.
Herzog's new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World (THINKFilm), lacks a central figure as spellbinding as Treadwell. It's a loosely bound collection of miscellany filmed at the McMurdo Station, a 1,000-person settlement of researchers in Antarctica, during the five-month "austral summer" of round-the-clock sunlight. Herzog was sent to Antarctica by the National Science Foundation with carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted—all he could tell them for sure was that it wouldn't involve penguins. What he returned with is a lyrical group portrait of McMurdo's motley crew of scientists, technicians, and lifelong travelers—men and women whom one local labels "professional dreamers" and whom those of us who live on more populated continents might affectionately call "crackpots."
They include: a biologist and deep-sea diver who's a fan of '50s science fiction and imagines being shrunk down to the size of the microscopic animals he studies and left to their mercy—"From slime-type blobs to worm-type things with horrible mandibles and jaws to rend your flesh … it really is a horrible world that's obscure to us." A physicist engaged in an impossibly abstruse experiment who defines neutrinos as "the most ridiculous particle you can imagine." A journeyman plumber who proudly displays his unusually shaped hands, which he swears point to his royal Aztec lineage. And a stone-faced computer expert who tells of traveling from Ecuador to Peru in a sewer pipe, then displays her popular parlor trick of contorting her body to fit into a carry-on bag.
Herzog narrates his ramblings around the Pole in a contemplative voice-over that sometimes plays on his well-established persona as a nihilistic crank. "I loathe the sunlight both on my celluloid and on my skin," he intones vampirishly at one point. His opening monologue on the plane to Antarctica—"We flew into the unknown, a seemingly endless void"—is prime fodder for amateur Herzog impersonators. (Don't laugh—I happen to live with one.) But Herzog the crank is a flimsy cover for Herzog the wonderstruck little boy, marveling at everything from the viscosity of seal milk (it pours like wax) to the spiderlike crab creatures that skitter along the ocean floor beneath the Ross Sea. During a digression on Ernest Shackleton's failed 1914-16 expedition to the South Pole, Herzog visits Shackleton's original hut, untouched for 100 years, the cans of mutton stew still stacked on the shelves.
A thoughtful glaciologist describes how our understanding of Antarctica has changed since Shackleton's day; instead of seeing the continent as "a cold monolith of ice" to be conquered in the name of empire, scientists now view it as a "dynamic, living entity that is constantly producing change." Herzog communicates that dynamism in images that are austere but far from monochromatic: the ballerinalike undulations of a neon-pink jellyfish; the cerulean-blue glow of the ice that covers the vast Ross Sea; a century-old film clip of Shackleton standing in a photography studio full of papier-mâché icebergs. One unforgettable shot breaks Herzog's self-imposed no-penguins rule to great effect. Visiting a colony of the continent's native birds, he observes a single male setting out for a mountain range in the opposite direction from his colony and the ocean that's his only source of food. As a scientist notes that the maverick bird is headed to certain death, Herzog leaves the camera on the tiny black figure waddling toward the horizon: the Klaus Kinski of penguins.
In another haunting scene, Herzog lays the sounds of Waddell seal calls—weird sci-fi beeps and trills that one researcher compares to the music of Pink Floyd—over a long shot of scientists lying on a frozen sea with their ears to the ice, listening to the seals swimming just below. It's a great visual metaphor for both the scientific method and Herzog's approach to documentary filmmaking: If you really want to know what's going on at the end of the Earth, just put your ear to the ground and listen.