The 365 Best Films of the 2000s

Heroes of the Zeroes: Encounters at the End of the World / Grizzly Man

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009. Today’s entry counts as two films.

“Encounters at the End of the World” / “Grizzly Man”
Rated G / Rated R
2007 / 2005

For someone avoiding “another film about penguins” in 2007’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” Werner Herzog captured the Zeroes’ most memorable waddle.

He observed a loner breaking from his pack, sprinting for a distant mountain toward certain doom, and driven by … what? Curiosity? Depression? Insanity? The question is quintessential Herzog — haunting, existential and forged by a kindred bond to obsessive spirits.

Through “World” and 2005’s “Grizzly Man,” Herzog studied humans in nature and controversial views about roles we play and knowledge we can reasonably acquire.

“World” took Herzog to Antarctica’s southernmost point, where, as interviewees say, scientists and tradesmen jump off the map and meet where the lines converge.

Unsurprisingly, Herzog captured unparalleled nature-film beauty. (Journeying with divers under the ice shelf was like sinking into bliss.) But it was little explosions of discovery through which Herzog scraped at ruminations of our place on the planet.

Do art and intelligence flicker in protective practices of single-celled organisms? What perpetuates the order of behavior in nature, and what prevents or, in the penguin’s case, precipitates a sudden shift? How can someone tangibly monitor something that both appears and is gone in one hundredth-billionth of a second?

Damnably frustrating and fascinating, these questions deconstruct Earth’s DNA in a scientific process that goes beyond statistics to ancestry or spirituality — an idea that we’re but witnesses and valets who are here and, sooner than we think, will be gone.

Herzog identified one such fleeting existence in Timothy Treadwell, aka “Grizzly Man.” An untrained studier of bears, Treadwell violated rules of football-field distance from Alaskan grizzlies for 13 consecutive summers, at times as close to them as a quarterback to a center. Foxes became like his pets, and there was fearlessness beneath his singsong cadence.

As in “Capturing the Friedmans,” Treadwell’s video camera became his confessional, and the monologues, rants and laments left behind feel like breadcrumbs on the trail to his death at the hands of, yes, a grizzly.

Treadwell was a Whitman’s sampler of contradictions and multitudes — a “kind warrior” who found salvation from alcoholism among the bears, but also had an incandescent rage toward those who would oppose him.

Herzog forgoes judging Treadwell’s disputed methods or questionable mental state — letting viewers decide based on footage that suggests Treadwell essentially sought some sort of transmutation from flesh to fur.

But whether you find Treadwell a civil-disobedience hero a la Henry David Thoreau or a loon who had it coming, his love of nature arguably persisted even as life and limb were ripped from him. He died doing the only work he ever truly wanted. (Audio of his death exists, but it’s purposefully unheard, with vivid descriptions of vivisection and a wrenching scene in which Herzog barely keeps his composure listening.)

“Arctic Tale,” “Earth” and “March of the Penguins” have their place for introducing nature’s “cuter” wonders to younger viewers. In “World” and “Grizzly,” Herzog challenged viewers by examining, with unforgettable ferocity, the urges, desires, chaos, serenity and hostility in our larger world.

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8 Responses to “Heroes of the Zeroes: Encounters at the End of the World / Grizzly Man”

  1. […] Herzog has always been a director fascinated by the absurd. His documentaries like “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World” stare at the madness from afar while his fictional films like “Fitzcarraldo” and […]

  2. […] director Werner Herzog. In addition to making such great films like “Fitzcarraldo” and “Grizzly Man,” Herzog was also shot mid-interview and proceeded to continue the interview. This is totally not a […]

  3. Jason Newkirk says:

    This looks interesting.

  4. […] But why is he the outcast? What dictates “regular” behavior? Mumble’s existential quest propelled 2006’s “Happy Feet” — the only animated kids’ film Werner Herzog could ever love. (Call Mumble a cuter cousin to the penguin running toward certain doom in Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World.”) […]

  5. Nick Rogers says:

    Austin: We’ll save a seat for you. That might sound like a joke, but if that movie got made and released to theaters, it would be in a four-seat theater guaranteed. Thanks for the compliments! "Encounters" truly is a haunting film on numerous levels.

  6. Austin Lugar says:

    Hey, if Herzog is narrating that margarine documentary I’ll go see it.

    Excellent write-up for both of these films. Grizzly Man has developed this fun following, but Encounters still remains underseen. So many things stuck with me from Encounters, like the great image of the people blindfolded and walking into the wrong direction. Also that lone penguin walking into the unknown. Great great film.

  7. Nick Rogers says:

    Brian: It’s a shame "Encounters" was released in the same year as "Man on Wire" (also on this list and perhaps my favorite film of 2008). Both outdid many of their fictional counterparts as an investigation of mankind’s destructive tendencies in pursuit of "glory." And the passage you cited was my second-favorite moment of the film apart from the penguin – the latter a moment I can never erase from my memory. And even though you and I might be the only ones in the theater to see that margarine documentary, I think you’re right.

  8. Brian Mackey says:

    Glad to see "Encounters at the End of the World" on your list — it was robbed of the Oscar that went to "Man on Wire."

    Herzog’s musing on the evolution of man’s drive to explore was representative of the sharp insights throughout the film: “Exposing the last unknown spots of this earth was irreversible, but it feels sad that the South Pole or Mount Everest were not left in peace in their dignity. It may be a futile wish to keep a few white spots on our maps, but human adventure, in its original sins, lost its meaning — became an issue for the ‘Guinness Book of World Records.’

    “Scott and Amundsen” — Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen, who reached the pole a month apart in the early 1900s — “were clearly early protagonists, and from there on it degenerated into absurd quests. A Frenchman crossed the Sahara Desert in his car set in reverse gear and I’m waiting for the first barefoot runner on the summit of Everest, or the first one hopping into the South Pole on a pogo stick."

    One gets the feeling Herzog could make a profound and beautiful documentary about margarine.