‘End of the World’ risks pay off for director Herzog

Al Alexander

Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man,'' "Rescue Dawn'') again fills his thirst for adventure by traveling to the South Pole and encounters a strange but fascinating collections of scientists, researchers and laborers who call Antarctica home during the summer.  

Germany invades Pole land in "Encounters at the End of the World'' and you’re glad it did, especially when Werner Herzog is leading the assault. Seldom has film’s Teutonic troubadour been more in his element, traipsing his way across Earth’s last frontier, Antarctica, the frozen continent where penguins roost and odd birds flock.

He finds plenty of the latter on his journey to the South Pole, most of them scientists and adventurers who like Herzog travel to their own drummers. A fascinating bunch, they are, too, each with a story stranger than fiction.

Well, strange to anyone who doesn’t understand the allure of the land of ice and snow, where each summer (that’s October to February local time) 1,100 eccentrics migrate to satisfy their need for discovery and adventure.

Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger tag along with more than a dozen of them, venturing over and under frozen terrain so gorgeous words cannot describe.

The scenery, as amazing as it is, is only secondary to the characters, and I mean characters. Like the plumber claiming to be an heir to Aztec royalty (and has freaky fingers to prove it); the banker who fled Colorado to wield a giant all-terrain bus (nicknamed Ivan the Terra) at

McMurdo Station, the hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program; and a researcher who says she crisscrossed Africa in a garbage truck and later traveled inside a sewer pipe from Colorado to South America before landing south of Cape Horn.

You love every one of them, too. But you’re more enthralled with their spirit for adventure and the enthusiasm fueling their work.

They are in essence modern-day cowboys risking life and limb while taking on everything Mother Nature can throw at them, be it blinding snowstorms or an active volcano.

It’s Herzog, though, who makes the trip most enjoyable. Serving as his own narrator, he slays with his deadpan humor, dissing "fluffy penguins'' (and a certain Oscar-winning movie) one minute and trashing ATMs, bowling alleys and yoga classes (all of them amenities at McMundo) the next.

He also does a lot of contemplating about the end of the world at – where else – the end of the world, where he pontificates on how humans will be viewed by the next rulers of Earth.

You question his bouts of fatalism, though, sensing a touch of wonder in his voice every time he encounters a place of incomparable beauty or a scientist who’s just made a significant breakthrough.

You feel equally enthused – and awed by the intestinal fortitude of adventurers unafraid to probe the unknown and take every endeavor to the edge. Much like the divers who swim unfettered under a frozen sea the size of Texas, never sure they’ll find their way back to a tiny hole in the ice that is their lone escape from a frigid grave.

Typical of Herzog, the director who also brought us the equally rousing adventures "Grizzly Man'' and "Rescue Dawn,'' his greatest affection is heaped upon a lone wolf, or should I say a lone penguin.

While all the other birds head one way, the little guy goes in the opposite direction, marching proudly into undiscovered territory with a bit of a death wish.

I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for Herzog, a filmmaker who still believes that without risk there is no reward.

The Patriot Ledger