A few years ago I became infatuated with the idea of going to Antarctica. It has everything I could ever dream of: cold weather, isolation, the perfect excuse to wear too many layers, drink copious amounts of coffee and penguins (those little guys are so freaking adorable). The idea of falling off the edge of the map to a continent that very few can boast about having visited became more than a dream. I had to go.
To make a short story shorter, I didn’t go. l did, however, do the next best thing—I watched Encounters at the End of the World.
Encounters at the End of the World follows legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog on a journey to the McMurdo Research Station, the largest community in Antarctica (which was also the setting of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Herzog sets out to capture a documetary free of fluffy penguins. He films the world’s most barren continent while exploring the lives, work and dreams of the people who call the ice their home.
Though the film focuses on many of the people who flock to the south pole—the scientists, philosophers, linguists, bankers, engineers, travelers and dreamers Herzog encounters—we still get to experience the beauty and wonder of the landscape. Herzog shows us the fluffy penguins he promised the film wouldn’t be about, large choirs of singing seals and unique and monstrous creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean beneath the ice.
Never appearing on screen, the only bit of Herzog we experience is his voice. Instantly recognizable and even more appealing, the filmmaker’s slow and precise German accent is layered over the soundtrack of a pained and remorseful choir. It’s equally fitting and beautiful.
Be warned: Encounters at the End of the World isn’t a travel documentary or a National Geographic wildlife program. Like many of Herzog’s works, the film is slow, romantic, curious, striking and subtle. Despite the visuals of melting ice and crumbling glaciers, he doesn’t shout out a warning cry of man’s impending doom at the hands of a destructed world. Herzog isn’t stupid and he sure as hell isn’t loud. This film is a carefully constructed snapshot of the people, places and things that force us to come to conclusions like these on our own.
Perhaps the most iconic and memorable scene is one in which the camera follows a lone penguin abandoning its group headed for open water. Turning away from the feeding grounds and the colony, it waddles off towards a mountain range that looms on the horizon.
As we watch the tuxedo-clad creature disappear in the distance, Herzog narrates: “The rules for the humans are do not disturb or hold up the penguin. Stand still and let him go on his way. And here, he’s heading off into the interior of the vast continent. With 5,000 kilometers ahead of him, he’s heading towards certain death.”
I think there’s more to it than just the penguin.
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the return of school or are beginning to feel like winter term is about to consume you, then give in to that feeling of wanderlust and make the journey to 5th Avenue Cinema, where Encounters at the End of the World will be screening Jan. 17–19. You may not be able to leave the continent, but an escape from classes may be exactly what you need.
5th Avenue Cinema is free for Portland State students, $3 for other students and $4 general admission.Visit 5thavenuecinema.org for more information.