Friday, July 4, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

(Directed by Werner Herzog, USA, 2007)

What better way to spend a long hot summer day than being in a semi-crowded theater watching a documentary about the South Pole? And what better tour guide than Werner Herzog, giving a sardonic voice-over to the proceedings?

This, the latest chapter in the (as one internet wag called it) "Herzog versus Nature" series of documentaries is one of this year's most enjoyable films: rather oddball and surprising. While giving laconic comments about the environment and the people he meets (the "encounters") in Antarctica, Herzog reveals a world that is rapidly changing as the threat of global warming encroaches.

The beauty of this world is revealed through the amazing cinematography of Peter Zeitlinger: either going under the surface of the polar ice caps to reveal some of the bizarre underwater denizens that live in sub-zero temperatures or filming the barrenness of Antarctica as a surrealistic snow-covered landscape, the photography is breathtaking.

Herzog's off camera delivery was rather poignant in certain places: showing the last outpost of the failed Shackleton exploration as a "turn of the century supermarket frozen in time" or the absurdist peril of a penguin heading away from its flock to certain death; when he wasn't being sardonic and making fun of the oddballs met on the way. Yet, he adds, he didn't want to do a standard "Discovery Channnel" documentary: he has succeeded in bringing a little known part of the world to the screen in all its latent, bizarre glory.

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