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Affirming 'Encounters'

Filmmaker Werner Herzog finds mystery, ecstasy and reason for hope in the Antarctic.

June 27, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Turnarounds are a funny thing. German filmmaker Werner Herzog has seen his critical reputation totally resuscitated over the last few years, as he has gone from semi-forgotten sleeping lion to revered giant, looming tall. His recent films, including "Grizzly Man" and "Rescue Dawn," have certainly seemed more engaged, but he has also reemerged as a personality, with a wizened, wry persona. His latest film, the documentary "Encounters at the End of the World," finds Herzog trekking to Antarctica. He does not appear on screen, but his hilariously deadpan voice-over leaves no doubt as to who is leading this expedition.

His films have always walked an odd line between fiction and reality. The recent trend of blurring the distinction between fiction filmmaking and documentary is something Herzog has been doing for quite some time. He has also lived his own life as something of an adventurer-thrill seeker-philosopher, as if his reckless risk-taking somehow confirmed his belief in life.

Upon arrival in Antarctica, Herzog documents the base camp and research hub for glaciologists, biologists, physicists and volcanologists that serves as a lone outpost of civilization, something of an Old West mining town, before heading off to the frontier. In narration, Herzog derides such "abominations" as yoga classes and an ATM, and he can't wait to get away from the banalities of everyday life.

At the bottom of the globe he finds dreamers, drifters and an unexpected spirituality. Though he likes to portray himself as a Teutonic-toned pessimist, wondering throughout the film about the end of humanity on Earth, what he encounters is deeply life-affirming. There is mystery and ecstasy, single-cell organisms that call into question the nature of intelligence, otherworldly creatures straight from the sci-fi imagination, underwater seal calls that sound like art-rock.

The images captured by Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger are dazzling all on their own, finding the disorienting psychedelia that is nature at its weirdest. Herzog makes a point throughout of repeatedly mentioning how he has no interest in "fluffy penguins," an obviously derisive knock against the benign, Oscar-winning "March of the Penguins." Yet after talking to a taciturn nature researcher, Herzog finds what he has been looking for all along -- his double. A lone penguin -- Herzog calls it "deranged" -- who does not follow the rest in picking one of two ways to go. Rather, this penguin heads off on its own path, running free across the frozen wilderness toward certain death. As the penguin takes his flight, arms back, chest out, Herzog's heart goes with it, a crazy lone adventurer in search of a solitary, singular perfection.


"Encounters at the End of the World." MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8233.

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