The best scene of Werner Herzog’s hand-held documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, shows an errant penguin heading off for the mountains, for the vast center of the continent. Not, that is, with his fellows to the sea for food, or even to the colony to mate and sit on eggs. If you tried to point this penguin toward either sensible place, he’d turn back to the mountains, to certain death. This, in answer to Herzog’s question of whether penguins ever go insane. “Disoriented” was the most that the taciturn scientist would say.
Herzog, complete with haunting German accent, talks a lot in this meandering film, yet its subject is mainly still and unspeakable. It came to be because of a grant from the National Science Foundation, which brings artists to the continent’s scientific bases in order to return some record of them to civilization. My aunt, Lita Albuquerque, was there at the same time as Herzog for artistic purposes of her own. The mission might seem impossible, or at least it should: bring inexact beauty to a scientific penal colony.
The sounds Herzog puts the images to, often, are religious—Russian Orthodox chanting was my guess. Thus the frozen landscapes and underwater, under-ice expanses become cathedrals. He calls them that outright. The people we meet in the film each bring their own interpretations. A vehicle-driving mystic quotes the Buddhist teacher Alan Watts. One morose scientist feeds off of classic sci-fi. And a physicist speaks of neutrinos as invisible gods.
Apocalypticism unites most among them, breathed in whichever flavor. Driving it is the obvious impermanence of human habitation there, the one great mass of earth where even our ingenuity can’t sustain us, unaided, for long. Antarctica, also, is ground zero for global climate change, and the researchers watch it unfold daily. How long before that certain transience envelops the whole world?
As one inhabitant after another talks with Herzog about these things, another pattern arises: the silence is so deep in Antarctica (or is it the only continent so alien we should say “on”?) that it can wake you up at night.
Herzog claims more for the film than it accomplishes, but the co-incidence of the penguin and the people is enough. How different is the hobbling bird’s “disorientation” from the systems of belief that drive us to the planet’s bottom? In this first colony of artificiality onto a natural world, it becomes clear how perfectly natural our artifice is.