Encounters at the End of the World

Film, Documentaries
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Encounters at the End of the World
It’s the end of the world as we know it… and Werner Herzog is asking Antarctica’s leading expert whether penguins ever go insane. Whatever America’s National Science Foundation was expecting when it commissioned the maverick German to come back from the South Pole with a feature-length doc, the result is neither fluffy wildlife showcase nor flat-out eco tub-thumping, but a characteristic amalgam of quirky observation and profound musing.

Bathed in 24-hour daylight for its ‘summer’ months, the McMurdo Research Station proves a magnet for professional dreamers and eccentrics, among them a fitter who believes the shape of his hand affirms his royal Aztec heritage and a much-travelled biologist whose party piece involves her being zipped up inside a piece of luggage. All a bit of a hoot, though it goes without saying there’s a bigger picture here.

‘We are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its own magnificence,’ reflects a passing philosopher, quoting Alan Watts. It sounds airy-fairy in print, but makes compelling sense as images unfurl of the vast tundra, an iceberg bigger than Northern Ireland and, most staggeringly, an aquatic world beneath the ice floes populated by wiggly creatures looking like escapees from a sci-fi flick. Herzog doesn’t bombard us with facts about global warming, but the evidence is so clear that there’s a doomsday feeling about all of this wonder, a feeling as powerful, haunting and humbling as the Bulgarian choral music the film reserves for its most eye-boggling moments. Seemingly off-hand, cumulatively imposing, utterly masterful.

By: Trevor Johnston

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Release details

Rated: U
Release date: Friday April 24 2009
Duration: 100 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Werner Herzog