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Ecstasy on Ice: Werner Herzog's 'Encounters at the End of the World'

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

An investment banker/bus driver, a philosopher/forklift driver and a glaciologist/poet are just three of the many “professional dreamers” who inhabit the strange world of Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, in Encounters at the End of the World, the new documentary from visionary filmmaker Werner Herzog.
As in many of his films, Herzog’s particular gifts for delving into the depths of human nature and for intuitive observations are richly illustrated through his exploration of enigmatic landscapes. Over the course of the film, he juxtaposes Antarctica’s astonishing natural vistas with a revolving cast of characters from all walks of life who, much like their surroundings, cannot be found anywhere else on earth.

Antartica sea creatures
Antartica sea creatures, from Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. Photo: Henry Kaiser.

Encounters at the End of the World could also be a testament to Herzog’s nearly 50 years of experience as an artist/filmmaker and his heartfelt passion for his cinematic subjects.  With a limited budget and an abbreviated shooting schedule, and under stressful physical conditions, he is able to convey the most intimate details of a nearly impenetrable world that includes everything from solitary humans and prostitute penguins to single-celled organisms that possibly exemplify the first signs of intelligent life, all while creating a visceral viewing experience.
IDA caught up with the director via phone, while he was finishing his New York press tour. The film opens June 11 in New York and June 27 in Los Angeles, through THINKFilm.


IDA: I was a bit overwhelmed and disoriented when I stood up after the film, and I had to steady myself on the way out of the theater. It was as if Antarctica had done something to me. What was it like for you, physically and emotionally, to spend time on that expanse?
Werner Herzog: In a way of course, Antarctica has some ingredients of disorientation. When you are landing down there, it’s five months of daylight and it’s already kind of strange. And when you are on the South Pole, you are looking in one direction and it’s north, and then you turn around and its still north, and you make half a turn more and it’s still north. I do understand your disorientation, and with the images under the Ross Shelf, it’s a completely cosmic, strange, science-fiction landscape that seems to be endless and out of fantasy, and you do not have any regular orientation that you would normally have.

Cape Royds
Werner Herzog (left) and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger at Cape Royds, shooting Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. Photo: Cindy Ogasawara.

IDA: I heard that your time was very limited. How long did you actually shoot? 
WH: All and all, I was down there for close to seven weeks. However, the first week or so you lose by going through bureaucracy and doing survival training, radio communications training and snow-mobile training. If you don’t do that, you are not allowed to leave the base. It was roughly, barely six weeks of shooting, and of course you cannot prepare anything. You do not know whom you are going to meet down there and you know very little about the scientific projects, so it’s a wonderful situation. You’re flying down and you know you have to come back with a movie in the can. It can’t get any better. This is life!

IDA: Given the limited time you were shooting, what were some of the challenges of finding a compelling narrative and deciding whose stories to shoot? 
WH: I always knew I would find it, and of course the film has it. I enjoy being a storyteller and I enjoy meeting people whom I like, and I enjoy finding horizons that have not been shown yet in movies. So it comes easy to me.

IDA: In many of your films, there are dreamers, who are on a journey. What was it like to wind up someplace where everyone was like that?
WH: You find yourself among scientists who deep in their heart are also poets, and you find the most wonderful people, with whom you want to stay forever. It’s a very good area to find people with whom you connect on a very deep level.

IDA: Speaking of connecting on a very deep level, you seemed to have a real affinity with cell biologist Samuel Bowser, and the segments with him and his colleagues seemed especially intimate. How did that rapport evolve?
WH:  In a way, yes, but I also had a special relationship with a man who was a journeyman plumber, and a special relationship with a linguist who works in computers and whom I found in the greenhouse, and I had a special relationship with a man who studies icebergs that are larger than the country that built the Titanic. So in a way, I had a special relationship with pretty much everyone there.

Under the ice
A diver under the ice. From Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. Photo: Henry Kaiser.

IDA:  You talk about finding “ecstatic truth”  in your films, and I also wanted to pull a quote of yours in regard to Grizzly Man: “Stepping outside of humanness and into ecstasy.” It seems like Encounters is bursting with those moments, where people are constantly stepping beyond their humanness and into something that’s nearly inexplicable—like the divers, who work below the ice floes in the “cathedral.”
WH: Yes, it has an almost religious feeling and the music, of course, points it out— Russian Orthodox Church choirs—and all of a sudden you have this feeling of a strange sacrality of these places. And of course, sometimes you are into the most unbelievable things, like these long carved tunnels in the ice, under the very south, mathematically true South Pole; corridors endlessly long and at the end of one of those corridors, and it’s 70 degrees below zero, and somebody has carved some sort of a shrine into the ice and you find a deep frozen sturgeon there. 

IDA: That was a great moment.
WH: Nobody could even invent it. I could not even invent such a thing. It’s either pure ecstasy, or pure science fiction, or pure Zen! 

IDA: Getting back to the music and the sound, it had a life of its own in the film. How did you decide what to use? 
WH: Oh, I’m very quick in deciding, and it was very clear from very early on that there would be Russian Orthodox Church choirs. And then of course, I knew Henry Kaiser would do much of the music, together with David Lindley. I always liked this music, and we never fiddled around with thinking too much about it; we knew it was the right one. But of course it’s more than the music. It’s the underwater sound recordings of seal calls, which sound almost like electronic music—utterly strange and beautiful and unbelievable. It is actually not my recording. I did the production sound, and I’m proud that I did a decent job, but the real, most wonderful element, the seal calls, are from Douglas Quinn, a great artist of sound, who had special underwater microphones that recorded calls of seals and Orcas whales.

IDA: I was transfixed by the seal calls, and I thought there was a real irony in the seal researchers trying to find a weight-loss solution, when this seal music was happening right under the ice. One of my favorite images was of the scientists stretched out on the ice, trying to hear the calls. Was that a moment that you had created?
WH: No, in a way I staged it and of course they listen, but they would not put their ear on the ice, or very briefly. I understood that listening and filming this very intensity of listening would translate to the audience and make them listen with that same intensity. So in a way, it’s very stylized.

IDA: So many people would be terrified, or in denial, at the thought of human obsolescence, but the Antarctic scientists see proof of our limited shelf life every day and they seem unfazed. I found it comforting. 
WH: Yes, and that biological life on this planet has been a series of catastrophes. We had the time of the trilobites. We had the time of the dinosaurs. Human existence on this planet is going to be a fleeting one and sponges and microbes have a much better chance, but it doesn’t make me nervous either. You know, I have a very good answer to all this, why it doesn’t make me nervous: Martin Luther, in the 16th century, was asked, What would you do if tomorrow the world would disappear, if it would end in a cataclysmic catastrophe? And he answered, “I would plant an apple tree today.”

Under the ice
Filmmaker Werner Herzog at the rim of Erebus, from his Encounters at the End of the World. Photo: Peter Zeitlinger.

IDA: When you applied for the National Science Foundation, you posited a series of unusual questions, such as ,“Why is it that human beings put on masks or feathers to hide their identity?” that you wanted to answer. Did they understand what you were after? 
WH: Yes; I did not want to mislead the National Science Foundation, and I said that I would go down with some unusual, unorthodox questions and they accepted it in a way. I actually never expected I would be invited. Anyone has a reasonable chance to go down there. If you have a serious project, apply for the grant. It’s not only for filmmakers; it’s for writers; it’s for artists. If you have a very unusual project, they will look at it with great sympathy.

Editor’s Note: Encounters at the End of the World was made possible, in part, by a grant through the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Here’s the link:
Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a writer and marketing/communications professional, who spent many years in the trenches as a publicist for documentary and independent feature films. She resides in Los Angeles with her family.