Last seen playing a priest in Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely (2007), Werner Herzog is back behind the camera with Encounters at the End of the World. Guided by Herzog's trademark droll narration, Encounters journeys to Antarctica, starting at the McMurdo Station research facility, where the director talks with people who've chosen to make a living in the world's most isolated community. Though grubby McMurdo is hardly picturesque, the surrounding land where Herzog visits divers who daringly study sea life below the ice, volcano researchers, and penguin and seal experts is as breathtaking as it is stark.
Filming in Antarctica, Herzog made what he called "a couple of good decisions." One was to hand over his camera for the underwater sequences, leaving the diving to experts. The other was more elemental. "Normally I am a man of celluloid, but filming on celluloid when it's very cold becomes a clumsy affair," he explained during a recent phone interview. "You have to keep your raw stock warm enough because film doesn't bend when it's extremely cold. It's like uncooked spaghetti that you bend, and then it breaks. So I decided against my normal procedures to film with digital cameras. And therefore there was not much of a challenge Antarctica is easy. It's not like the times of [Robert Falcon] Scott."
If you think that title only refers to geography, think again. "[Global warming is] not the predominant subject of discourse in Antarctica. What is all-pervading is that many of the scientists are rightfully in my opinion convinced that the human presence on this planet is quite limited and not sustainable," Herzog said. "But it doesn't make me nervous. Martin Luther said something very beautiful when he was asked once, 'What would you do if tomorrow the world would disappear?' He said, 'I would plant an apple tree.' And I find this a very good attitude. I don't plant apple trees, but I make films."
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Opens Fri/27 at Bay Area theaters