Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Encounters at the End of the World


These days Werner Herzog seems to be doing almost as many documentaries as dramatic films. And, Werner being Werner, they tend to be about extreme places and/or obsessed—not to say crazy—people. You can’t get much more extreme than Antarctica. Did you know it’s one of the driest places on Earth? Less than two inches of precipitation per year in the interior, less than the Sahara. Of course, it just stays there except for glacial movements, so the ice is over a mile thick. It can get as cold as –128F (that’s cold enough to make dry ice!), and winds can blow at 200 mph. I can’t even imagine the wind-chill factor for that combination. Stepping out into it would be like diving into a pool of liquid nitrogen.

Herzog said he had no interest in making yet another film about penguins, and we hardly see any, except one poor disoriented fellow that is wandering off toward the interior and certain death. What Herzog is most interested in is the sort of people who wind up down there in the most hostile environment on the surface of the planet. And they are an odd lot, from the scientists to the bulldozer driver. He stays only briefly at the teeming metropolis of McMurdo Station (pop. 1200, the largest—by far—town down there). I can’t blame him. The place is ugly as sin, like all polar towns I’ve ever seen pictures of. Mud, snow, no plants of any kind, ugly buildings, vehicles parked all over. People in places like that are so busy surviving they don’t have time for much else. But there is a bowling alley, a swimming pool, an ATM, and an ice cream machine that, when it breaks down, is a serious morale problem.

Herzog takes us under the ice to see the weird things that live in the sea down there, and to the lip of the volcano Mount Erebus to look at the lava pool down below, and to the south pole itself, where the recorded high temperature is –8F. All in all, it’s an interesting trip. Not one I’d like to make, and that’s what a good documentary is all about, isn’t it? They do it so we don’t have to.