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Peering Under the Surface of Antarctica
Herzog's Focus Goes Beyond the Cliches

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 2008

What draws us to distant places? Is it a chance to leave our footprints on the moon? To have encounters with exotic cultures? Make connections with fellow travelers? Find a mystical route back to ourselves? In "Encounters at the End of the World," documentary provocateur Werner Herzog blows the portentous dust off those questions and takes us on an enjoyably caustic journey to the heart of Antarctica.

Known for his hypnotic films set in otherworldly cultures, Herzog takes to the frozen continent with his customary fusion of mystical mission and pithy skepticism. It's as much fun to anticipate what he's going to say as it is to appreciate the snowy landscapes, belching volcanoes and mustachioed seals before his lens. And what would have been a conventional travelogue becomes a sort of ruminative odyssey of the mind.

Herzog's works -- documentary and dramatic -- have always traced man's complex, often delusional relationship with nature. Remember the tragically doomed Timothy Treadwell in the 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man," or Klaus Kinski's demented, fictional conquistador in 1972's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," who seeks El Dorado's gold streets in the Amazon?

Although Herzog claims he was drawn to Antarctica by spectacular cinematic footage of its underwater world, he seems just as interested in debunking as revering what he finds. The research station of McMurdo on Ross Island is, he declares, "an ugly mining town of Caterpillars and noisy construction sites." The still-preserved camp of legendary explorer Robert Scott? A monument to mindless colonial expansion. He declares a personal vendetta against all documentaries featuring fluffy penguins and, as if to make his point, trains his camera on a disoriented penguin as it wanders thousands of kilometers off-course, toward almost certain death.

Herzog's agenda is far from cynical, however. At the base of his inquiries and declarations -- voiced in that signature Bavarian accent -- is an almost childlike desire to know. Why is it, he wonders, that certain breeds of ants keep plant lice as slaves to milk them for droplets of sugar? And if chimps are so smart, why don't they saddle up goats and ride into the sunset?

We may find this latter question screamingly funny, especially with the artist's rendition of a goat-mounted chimp that appears on screen. But Herzog, who once confessed to me that he lacks a sense of humor, really doesn't. It's not clear whether we're supposed to laugh, either, at Herzog's sincerely posed question to a marine ecologist -- are there such things as gay penguins? It's all part of his idiosyncratic process of discovery, which seems to nestle in some fascinating no-man's-land between Alexis de Tocqueville and Jon Stewart.

As in his previous films, Herzog uncovers a small population of visionary goofballs and dreamers. There's forklift driver and "philosopher" Stefan Pashov revealing his very personal connection with Homer's "The Odyssey." And glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal recounting his dreams of vast, moving icebergs. And there's computer expert/adventurer Karen Joyce telling (endless, Herzog complains) Indiana Jones-style stories about being kidnapped by hostile soldiers in Uganda.

What makes their accounts so fascinating isn't the content. It's our awareness of the man behind the camera, his brain ticking in Herzogian overdrive. He's not just pushing his on-camera subjects to speak beyond the boundaries of convention, he's making us listen that way, too. And he immerses us in his surrealistic vision of the world -- an absorbing adventure in itself.

Encounters at the End of the World (99 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated G and contains nothing objectionable.

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