Early in Encounters at the End of the World (2007) Werner Herzog explains that he agreed to make a film about Antarctica as long as it didn't have to be another film about penguins. Oddly, penguins figure significantly in several scenes. In one, Herzog is interviewing an expert on penguins well known for his reserve. Trying to get the man to open up, Herzog asks whether there are "gay" penguins and then whether penguins ever lose their minds, go insane. The man pauses and answers that although he has never seen an insane penguin he has seen penguins become disoriented and confused and wander off from the group. If you pick them up and try to turn them around, they persist walking in the wrong direction. They will walk for miles, and often this results in their deaths.
This reference to me formed an analogy to the main focus of this film on the odd and motley assemblage of researchers and workers who live at McMurdo Station near the South Pole. Philosophers, artists, scientists, all have their reasons for living threre, and all, in some way, are analogous to the penguins. Parts of the film reminded me of an earlier Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), about the young man who spends years living near grizzly bears, believing that he has achieved a harmonious rapprochement with these wild animals, until one day they attack and eat him. Herzog had little sympathy for the bear researcher, and although he has a clear interest in the people he meets in the Antarctic, he doesn't seem to have much real sympathy for them either.
Landscape photography plays only a minor role in this film. There are impressive sequences shot underneath the Antarctic ice cap, but they are not really beautiful or inspiring and instead are eerily creepy and weird. The world beneath the frozen ice cap is as strange a place on earth as one is likely to find.
What fascinates Herzog about the Antarctic is the desolate isolation and the contrast between the frozen wastes and the small and fragile human settlements. He spends much of the film interviewing people he meets there: a truck driver who was once a philosopher, a British scientist who dresses in tweeds and does research near an active volcano, two biologists who rejoice in their discovery of new single cell species, researchers who relax by playing rock music on the top of a building, and so on.
Herzog finds ecological significance in Antarctica—even in a small settlement of slightly more than 1000 residents there is commercial and chemical pollution. He addresses the subject of technology and explains his certain conviction that the human race will someday soon become extinct—though he never quite connects this conviction to the subject of his film.
Herzog's is the narrating voice of Encounters at the End of the World. The film is loose and wandering in structure as we follow the director from one subject to another. This is not a flaw but an attribute—the film seems structured in just the right way. Herzog often seems to have his perverse tongue in cheek as he asks researchers and other residents of McMurdo Station questions about their lives and what they do. It's clear that he finds these men and women living at the South Pole to be eccentric and odd, but in the context of the film Herzog himself seems equally odd.