Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds hitting Apple TV+, we’re highlighting some of the iconic director’s best documentaries.
When Werner Herzog went to Antarctica, it was not to make “another film about penguins.” That’s what he claims, in that famous Teutonic accent of his, to have told the National Science Foundation, host of the excursion he embarked upon for Encounters At The End Of The World. The line is a dig at March Of The Penguins, which handily bested his own nature doc, Grizzly Man, at the box office in 2005. Maybe that stuck in Herzog’s craw. But his trip to the coldest continent was about asking bigger questions, like what makes humans put on masks, get on horses, and “feel the urge to chase the bad guy?” And why don’t chimps utilize inferior creatures in the same way? “He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset,” the director muses.
When Herzog does deal with penguins, it’s on his own quirky, inquisitive, quasi-twisted terms. “I read somewhere that there are gay penguins,” he says to marine ecologist Dr. David Ainley, before asking, “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?”—questions that prompt stories of penguin throuples and penguin prostitutes, and footage of a “disoriented or deranged” bird distancing himself from the rest of the colony and heading over to the mountains. He’s on his own march.
But Encounters isn’t a huge “fuck you” to March or penguin enthusiasts. As in Grizzly Man, Herzog’s real focus is humans and their relationship with nature. In this case, he looks at the people of McMurdo Station, a large research community that has everything from a bowling alley to a radio station to such “abominations” as an aerobics studio and yoga classes. Herzog would much prefer to be outside, hanging with the inhabitants: scientists, researchers, experts, and other wayward folk (many of them dive underneath the surface, in ethereal, awe-inspiring sequences shot by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and scored by producer/co-composer Henry Kaiser) who can be best described as eccentric and ragtag. The minute he gets off the plane, Herzog meets Scott, the driver of a humongous transportation vehicle known as Ivan the Terra-Bus. Scott was previously a Colorado banker who later joined the Peace Corps and helped people in Guatemala. At one point, a crew of locals with machetes chased him down thinking he was there to steal children. Thankfully, a teenage villager who could speak both English and the native tongue (Scott calls him “judge and jury”) eventually set that weapon-wielding mob straight and he was let go.
It’s like that all throughout Encounters: Herzog meets people who have led such amazing lives, they could headline their own doc, just as Timothy Treadwell did in Grizzly Man. These characters include Libor, a utility mechanic who escaped the Iron Curtain (a subject he still has trouble talking about) and who always has a well-stocked rucksack ready, and Karen, a computer expert who traveled from Ecuador to Peru in a sewer pipe and wows audiences with her ability to pack her whole self into a travel bag. Like that wayward penguin, the occupants of McMurdo have gone their own way. And they all have stories Herzog lets them tell to those not living at the end of the world.
Availability: Encounters At The End Of The World is currently streaming on Sundance Now. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Fandango Now, and VUDU.