Werner Herzog says his trip to the south pole came about by chance. He was working on the music for his documentary "Grizzly Man" with the musician Henry Kaiser when something caught his eye.
"I just turned around once, and for two seconds I saw something extraordinary on his laptop," Herzog said. "And I stopped everything and rushed to the control room and I said, 'Henry I must see this! I must see this!'"
It was eerie blue film shot under the ice near the south pole. Kaiser, a trained ice-diver, had filmed it himself during a visit to the research base there.
"And the funny thing was Henry Kaiser thought this footage was bad and not presentable, and I thought it was the most beautiful I had seen in decades," said Herzog.
Armed only with a grant from the National Science Foundation and a camera crew, Herzog set off. What he found at the McMurdo base was a thousand people who, as someone in the film puts it, have fallen off the edges of the planet and gathered down at the bottom.
“In a way you see the planet slightly differently. Many of the scientists there maintain that our presence, the human presence on this planet, doesn't seem to be sustainable.”Werner Herzog
"There's cutting edge science, and all the very, very big questions are being studied down there," Herzog said. "Climate change, origins of biological life, that's actually why they are diving to the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean, because they find single-celled organisms which point back to the earliest forms of life on this planet."
Herzog met physicists studying neutrinos and volcanologists exploring magma-spewing craters to get clues about the earth's crust, and he met biologists studying the Antarctic's animals and birds, but Herzog had his own research though.
"I was interested in the question whether there was such a things as insanity or derangement among animals and, in particular, penguins. And apparently there is some sort of derangement," he said.
Herzog became fascinated by one penguin he saw walking away from the colony and away from the sea. The researchers said it wouldn't turn back, even though with no food ahead for thousands of miles, it was bound to die. Something about the birds determination appealed to Herzog, so he included it in "Encounters at the End of the World."
"I think the film tries to look deeper than just documenting the surface of things," Herzog said. "You always have the feeling of a search for something which is beyond the facts, something of ecstatic, almost ecstatic beauty, of this planet and this environment down there."
A large number of off-beat human characters also appear in the film. There's the researcher, so traumatized by growing up behind the Iron Curtain, that he always carries an escape bag, which includes an inflatable canoe.
There's a Navajo man, who does repairs in the base workshop, who's convinced he's descended from Incan royalty.
There are blues musicians who play electric guitars on the roof of their hut. And there's the research biologist who entertains his team with his collection of 1950's doomsday movies, which he screens during free time.
"In a way you see the planet slightly differently," Herzog said. "Many of the scientists there maintain that our presence, the human presence on this planet, doesn't seem to be sustainable."
He pauses and then says, "But it doesn't make me nervous either."
When asked why not, Herzog said he doesn't think the dinosaurs were nervous that the time of the dinosaurs was over either.
Werner Herzog doesn't have time to worry. He says he has five more films in development, and he hopes to get at least two of them shot this year.