Werner Herzog guarantees the viewer at the start of Antarctica docu “Encounters at the End of the World,” he did not travel to the frozen continent to make “another film about penguins.” Rather, the South Pole’s human inhabitants piqued Herzog’s interest — the small but hearty community of researchers, scientists and assorted adventurers who make their home at the very bottom of the Earth. Resultant pic — one of Herzog’s best and most purely enjoyable — may lack the built-in curio factor of “Grizzly Man” (which was produced, like “Encounters,” by the Discovery Channel), but should nonetheless continue the iconoclastic helmer’s niche box-office win streak, with long ancillary life to follow.
In many ways, Antarctica reps a logical a destination for Herzog, who has spent his career making films in some of the world’s most remote corners and who, with “Encounters,” becomes the first director to have shot a movie on each of the seven continents. On screen, though, Herzog is quick to criticize those who seek adventure strictly for personal glory or Guinness Book records, while reserving his highest praise for those restless souls who are not easily confined by the strictures of normal society and who find themselves forever venturing toward new horizons.
Upon arriving at Antarctica’s McMurdo research station, Herzog finds such characters en masse, among them a former Colorado banker who now drives a great hulking vehicle christened Ivan the Terra Bus, a journeyman plumber who claims to be descended from Aztec royalty, and, in one of pic’s most distinctly Herzogian moments, a female researcher who once traveled from London to Nairobi in the back of a garbage truck and who, during McMurdo’s local talent night, contorts her body inside of a small piece of carry-on luggage.
Pic has a loose, episodic flow, punctuated (as usual in Herzog docus) by the director’s own wry voiceover and his unerring eye for strangeness and eccentricity. So it is that Herzog is as struck by the forbidding vastness of Antarctica’s “seemingly endless void” as he is by the often incongruous objects dotting the otherwise vacant landscape — a yoga studio, an ATM machine, and a cafeteria where the soft-serve ice-cream machine named Frosty Boy is worshiped by the locals with a nearly religious fervor.
In one scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of Jacques Tati’s famous farces, Herzog enlists in a survival camp where white-out blizzard conditions are simulated by having participants wear plastic buckets over their heads. Elsewhere, Herzog meets up with pic’s producer/composer Henry Kaiser, an arctic diving enthusiast whose home-video footage of the icy Ross Sea sparked Herzog’s interest in making “Encounters.”
Kaiser serves as Herzog’s conduit into Antarctica’s elite scientific community, including cell biologist Sam Bowser, whose love of 1950s sci-fi disaster movies extends to screening a DVD of “Them!” for his bemused colleagues.
Then, after promising not to do it, Herzog engages with a contemplative penguin behaviorist, who grudgingly responds to the director’s queries about “penguin prostitution.” This leads to what is sure to be one of the pic’s most discussed sequences, in which Herzog trains his camera upon a disoriented male penguin who has resolved, for reasons unknown, to trudge off toward Antarctica’s sprawling interior and certain death. Leave it to Herzog to find the animal kingdom’s equivalent of his many famed madmen protagonists.
Frequently there is the sense that, after decades of filming frontier societies, from the jungles of the Amazon (“Aguirre,” “Fitzcarraldo”) to the Australian outback (“Where the Green Ants Dream”), Herzog has arrived at a true final frontier, and that the only logical place left for him to take his camera next is outer space. As it is, there are many moments in which Herzog transforms the strange and wondrous sights and sounds of Antarctica into the landscape of an alien planet, as he did with the burning oil fields of Kuwait in his celebrated “Lessons of Darkness.”
Lensed in crisp high-definition video by a two-man crew consisting of Herzog and d.p. Peter Zeitlinger, pic offers one arresting visual marvel after another and should render contrite all who say there is nothing left for movies to show us that we haven’t seen before.