Forget about Morgan Spurlock. Stand back, Michael Moore. The biggest joker making documentaries right now, believe it or not, is that wacko philosopher and German stone-face Werner Herzog. Is the world upside down, or what?
The iconoclastic filmmaker's latest triumph of what can only be called secular mysticism is entitled Encounters at the End of the World, and unfolds atop and beneath the ice of Antarctica. All the beloved Herzog elements are here: breathtaking nature, exceptionally smart and obsessive eccentrics, mysteries big and small and the director's gently mocking narration. ("I hate the sun on both my celluloid and my skin," he declares early on, lamenting the clear weather.) Like every other Herzog doc, Encounters isn't informational or (God forbid) educational, but experiential.
Herzog lands at McMurdo Station, the South Pole home of the National Science Foundation, where he is immediately confronted with the ugly evidence of human activity. He can't wait to get out of town and find some empty pristine landscape. Yet wherever he goes he is drawn to human beings -- scientists, mostly, who symbolize our species' relentless impulse to acquire knowledge and to explain every mystery.
Every discovery of a new organism, according to one dedicated expert, serves to "increase the known diversity." Indeed, the film is a compendium of digging, sawing, drilling and dynamiting in the name of scientific research and sample collecting. Herzog never comes out and says it, but he's amassed a pretty good visual argument that we are destroying the planet in order to preserve it. He's incapable of earnest pontification, but putting that limitation aside, Encounters could easily be included alongside An Inconvenient Truth in the burgeoning sub-genre of eco-docs.
Herzog doesn't believe in God -- although he does believe in heavenly sounding choral harmonies and opera -- and I'm not sure how much he likes man. He gently mocks the long-winded exploits and travels of a few of the scientists, but he has to realize that he's simultaneously sending up his own peripatetic journeying and mythmaking (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in particular, comes to mind).
We are talking about two equally quixotic pursuits, the need to solve every unknown and the need to film every impossible and wacky human endeavor. Both require extraordinary levels of commitment and, if one is to remain sane and balanced, a sense of humor and a rein on one's ego. Herzog certainly has the ability to prickle and annoy us with his flashes of self-indulgence, but he also charms us like nobody else, like when he goes off on a bizarre, hilarious and ultimately touching digression about gay and insane penguins.
Encounters at the End of the World is a transporting film, and a beautiful one. It might even be an important one, though I'm more inclined to call it a mind-expanding cloud of cotton candy than a work of philosophical and intellectual profundity. But then the function of jokers and jesters has always been to show us ourselves, through the camouflage of faux naive pranks.
It can't just be a coincidence that Herzog's effortlessly amusing travelogue arrives at the same time as The Love Guru, a clumsy, unfunny comedy starring the former Saturday Night Live star who mocked humorless Germans in the recurring "Sprockets" sketch. Who would have guessed that Werner Herzog would get the last laugh?
Encounters At the End of the World opens Friday, June 27, 2008 at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose.