Encounters at the End of the World

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In 2006 The National Science Foundation sent documentarian Werner Herzog to the South Pole with some doubt as to whether he wouldn’t “come up with another movie about penguins.” Herzog, in his gravelly, German-accented narration, continues this recount: “My questions about nature, I let them know, were different.”

Herzog was drawn to the Antarctic after seeing underwater photographs taken in the Ross Sea, an expanse covered in six feet of ice and the size of the continental United States. Yet the story is just as much about the people living in this corner of the world, as the place itself, where compasses don’t spin but point upward.

Encounters at the End of the World is a strange film, full of odds and ends, people and creatures alike. Herzog finds volcanologists, a Russian philosopher, a linguist-cum-biologist, a researcher who once drove a garbage truck across Africa, a plumber descended from Aztec royalty. He asks how they arrived there. As one puts it, “if you take everybody who’s not tied down, they all sort of fall to the bottom of the planet.”

The more profound questions Herzog brings to this place, to its creatures and topography, to our modern-day explorers, the scientists, and finally to humanity, remain mostly unanswered. They are questions of existence, of our past and future, questions pregnant with joy and grief, met with visions of the silent, overwhelming continent. Melville’s description of Moby Dick helps us to imagine the this land:

“Is it that by [the whale’s] indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reason that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows?”

The people living here send mammoth balloons 40km into the atmosphere looking for neutrinos, the most elusive, omnipresent, foundational of particles. They swim beneath fields of ice, “underwater cathedrals,” in search of species and formations. Shackleton at the turn of the century and modern-day scientists: people are directed here by the compass of their curiosity. Their questions connect them, and are sustained by this “wide landscape of snows.”