DVD Review: Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World (2 DVD Set)

Now Available on DVD & Blu-ray


Excerpts from
"A Letter to Werner Herzog" by Roger Ebert*:

(photo source)

"You have had the visions and made the films and trusted people to find them, and they have. It is safe to say you are as admired and venerated as any filmmaker alive—among those who have heard of you, of course. Those who do not know your work, and the work of your comrades in the independent film world, are missing experiences that might shake and inspire them."

"You often say this modern world is starving for images. That the media pound the same paltry ideas into our heads time and again, and that we need to see around the edges or over the top. When you open “Encounters at the End of the World” by following a marine biologist under the ice floes of the South Pole, and listening to the alien sounds of the creatures who thrive there, you show me a place on my planet I did not know about, and I am richer. You are the most curious of men. You are like the storytellers of old, returning from far lands with spellbinding tales."

"You and your work are unique and invaluable, and you ennoble the cinema when so many debase it. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. And you have proven it."

(Click Here to Read the Entire Letter)

* Note: Encounters was dedicated to Roger Ebert, whom filmmaker Werner Herzog describes in Disc 2's extensive New York City Museum of the Moving Image interview with director Jonathan Demme as a man, "whom I love as a wonderful warrior; a soldier-- a good soldier of cinema."

Obviously, indeed to myself and certainly any other film buffs who found themselves continually seeking out worthwhile cinema over the last few decades, Roger Ebert has been our guiding force and an amazingly heroic champion of unheralded film-- whether in his former successful television series he co-hosted with Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper or in his delightful column and blog from The Chicago Sun-Times, which has inspired him to branch off releasing some truly remarkable and valuable works of nonfiction scholarly film study. Yet, at the same time such high praise from the humanistic, endlessly compassionate, witty, and inspiring filmmaker Werner Herzog seems equally fitting of Herzog himself.

While there's no way that anyone can begin to poetically describe his work with such amazing clarity and insight as Ebert managed to capture in that heartfelt letter, (which Herzog reveals he'd kept completely private and never would have published) interviewer Jonathan Demme makes a great point early on in their interview that justifies its release on the web. He does this by noting an issue that's been cropping up more and more in the world of journalism-- namely the dwindling amount of film critics being fired every day in favor of syndication, popular catch-all sites like Rotten Tomatoes which has led to an overwhelmingly narrow point of view being parroted again and again on the biggest blockbusters.

Thus, the public access to this letter and Ebert's constant fight to get the word out on work he passionately cares about makes soldiers like Ebert and Herzog incredibly important here in the twenty-first century. Do we really need two thousand reviews of Mamma Mia! when only a handful of critics may actually venture outside the comforts of cushy big studio screenings to seek out images that may "shake and inspire them?" It's a fascinating problem and one that doesn't really belong in this review either except that it's a question that is raised by Demme and by the very few scholars like Ebert we have left who haven't given in to box office predictions and gossip pieces.

Moreover, additionally, it's applicable as well to Herzog-- the man they both celebrate in regards to this amazing documentary-- which in its own way by discussing some of the questions facing us regarding our perhaps bleak environmentally jeopardized future also goes in tandem with the movie industry as well.

Of course, it's all subtext (or the questions behind the questions,) yet instead of delving beneath the ocean on that heated topic, we'll plummet into the icy waters of Antarctica with Werner Herzog who ventures to the continent to film anything aside from another penguin movie. Again, working with the Discovery Channel which aired the series-- Herzog decides to "go someplace cool," accepting the National Science Foundation of America's invitation to make his next nonfiction work in a faraway land but in typical Herzog fashion, explore the landscape in a way that it's never really been captured.

Whether he's likening the underwater divers to astronauts as the bravely daring scientists "sink into bliss" without tethers and without the use of compasses since the magnetic needle would point straight downward or wondering why chimpanzees don't straddle goats and ride into the sunset like our famous cowboys-- his point-of-view is always distinct and amusing. And it's especially thus when evaluating the set-up of the man-made McMurdo town and its noisy construction sites, fixed research labs, "Freak Train" entertainment act, ironic "Happy Camper" survivalist training, or the "Frosty Boy" desert machine that keeps everything running smoothly and without crisis.

While he considers the comfortable luxuries like aerobics and yoga centers, bowling alleys, and ATM machines "abominations," with his wry, witty, observational narration that runs throughout as he tries to get away from the very nice people of the Science Foundation who were "just a little too concerned with my safety," the film really gets going when he moves into the desolate, endlessly white landscape.

Visiting the continent when it exists in that surreal state of five months without night, he gives us a nice historical overview of the early explorers whose ships became stuck in the ice floes, leaving them stranded in the failed, nearly one-hundred year old Shackleton Expedition to the way that now the mesmerizing yet unforgiving landscape of white-outs and violent winds has become a near-magnet for "people with the urge to jump off the edge of the map," as one interviewee notes.

And while the research is remarkably fascinating as we discover the study of icebergs not as just chunks of ice that sunk the Titanic but instead as the filmmaker notes "dynamic, changing, living entities" (that are now producing change that they broadcast to the world in response to what the world is broadcasting to the icebergs in terms of the global temperature rise), is the breathtaking footage of the wonders of the land itself.

From the underwater exploration of single-cell organisms to finding an extremely unique angle to film one unforgettable penguin who wanders off from his group alone, ready to venture into the unknown optimistically (despite inevitable doom), who--much like the Energizer Bunny-- will just keep going and going no matter how many attempts are made to bring him back, Encounters is an incredibly unique portrait of all life coexisting on the continent.

And Herzog, always drawn to eccentric tales and larger than life figures manages to find some truly unforgettable individuals captured on film as he interviews the various adventurers and PhD "part-time workers" turned "professional dreamers" all with a wild story to tell from nearly being hacked by a machete in Guatemala while working in the Peace Corp, a contortionist who can "travel as hand luggage" who trekked from Ecuador to Peru in a sewer pipe, or a heartbreaking look at an escapee who made it out from behind the Iron Curtain yet still keeps a bag packed at all times should he need to leave at a moment's notice.

In this lush digital transfer, available from Image Entertainment in a 2-DVD set also debuting on Blu-ray, audiences are treated to a plethora of extras from additional featurettes such as "Under the Ice" and "Over the Ice" coupled with bonus Herzog interview footage with divers and scientists.

Of course, aside from the film, the standout is that incredible roughly sixty-seven minute interview with Demme that fills disc 2 and is a rare treat for Herzog fans who by now have come to cherish the way that he always stays true to his own vision and charts his own course, much like-- not just the human inhabits of Antarctica he films but also that penguin who is waddling onward-- perhaps planning to make his own documentary, now that he's been inspired by masterful films like Encounters at the End of the World.