“What hath God wrought?” was the first piece of Morse code ever sent, a melodramatic message which suggested something akin to Mary Shelley’s monster awakening and, perhaps, technology putting old myths to sleep. In his movie, Lo and Behold: Reveries Of A Connected World, Werrner Herzog believes something even more profoundly epiphanic is happening in the Digital Age, and it’s difficult to disagree.
The director tells Ben Makuch of Vice that for him, technology is an entry point to learning about people (“I’m interested, of course, in the human beings”). Despite Herzog’s focus, the bigger story is events progressing in the opposite direction, from carbon to silicon.
In a later segment about space colonization, Herzog acknowledges having dreams of filming on our neighboring planet, saying, “I want to be the poet of Mars.” But, in the best sense, he’s already earned that title.
Staring into the maw of an active volcano in Guadeloupe is inherently more dramatic than Googling or Tweeting, but it’s the latter that ultimately may have a larger-than-Krakatoa effect on the world. Werner Herzog, who was brave and foolish enough to drag a small camera crew to the gurgling La Soufrière in 1976, has now turned his attention to another unpredictable and potentially explosive source, though this time a human-made one, the Digital Revolution.
In a New York Times review, A.O. Scott trains his immaculate writing on the director’s latest, the impressionistic Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. The piece is far from a pan, though the critic asserts the auteur’s attempts to introduce poetry and wonder into the topic do not always survive the facts of our algorithmic era.
The devices in our hands and on our desks, and the invisible, ubiquitous networks that link them, are often seen to be ushering us toward utopia or hastening the arrival of the apocalypse. Mr. Herzog, an unseen interviewer with an unmistakable voice, seems receptive to both views. He listens to scientists and entrepreneurs celebrate the expansion of knowledge and learning that the digital revolution has brought forth, and to others who lament the erosion of privacy and critical-thinking skills. The physicistLucianne Walkowiczexplains how a solar flare could bring the whole network — and with it our super-technologized way of life — crashing down in a matter of days. On the other hand, we might build self-driving cars, perfect artificial intelligence applications that permanently erase the boundary between people and machines or even create colonies on Mars.
At times, Mr. Herzog’s imagination leaps beyond even the more startling speculations of his subjects. He is not so much credulous as excitable, given to interrupting the prose of researchers and analysts with flights of poetry. He tries to press some of them to predict the future, something scientists are generally reluctant to do. And he poses a question that charms and stumps many of them: “Does the internet dream of itself?”
As its title suggests, “Lo and Behold” is to some extent Mr. Herzog’s dream of the internet. Divided into 10 brief chapters, it is impressionistic rather than comprehensive. Many of the ideas are familiar, and some important aspects of life in the digital era are examined superficially or not at all. Though Edward Snowden’s name is dropped, there is not much attention to surveillance or spying, and the uses and abuses of connectivity as a tool of corporate and state power are barely explored.
The interviews seem to have been conducted over a few years, which gives a curiously dated feeling to parts of the film. Sebastian Thrun, a founder of the online learning company Udacity, enthuses about the transformative potential of his courses, but the widely reportedfailureof those courses to realize their supposed potential does not come up. Skepticism is really not Mr. Herzog’s thing.•
In the pursuit of truth, Werner Herzog has his whole life elected to battle elements natural and human-made. Whether taking epic walks across Germany sans car, lugging cameras to the maw of a live volcano or commanding his cast and crew to pull a 320-ton steamship over a hill, he hasn’t always enjoyed a tension-less relationship with the tools of the Industrial Age, let alone the Digital one.
In 2011’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog offered a mélange of the natural and artificial, the implements of the ancient and modern, trying to make sense of, among other things, cave drawings, 3-D filmmaking, albino crocodiles and nuclear power plants. In the forthcoming Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, he takes a bold step into what technology has wrought, not dismissing its greatness nor drunkenly celebrating its proliferation.
In a smart Vox interview, Emily Yoshida had the happy task of explaining Pokémon Go to the director. It could not have gone better. An excerpt:
Tell me about Pokémon Go. What is happening on Pokémon Go?
It’s basically the first mainstream augmented reality program. It’s a game where the entire world is mapped and you walk around with the GPS on your phone. You walk around in the real world and can catch these little monsters and collect them. And everybody is playing it.
Does it tell you you’re here at San Vicente, close to Sunset Boulevard?
Yeah, it’s basically like a Google map.
But what does pokémon do at this corner here?
You might be able to catch some. It’s all completely virtual. It’s very simple, but it’s also an overlay of physically based information that now exists on top of the real world.
When two persons in search of a pokémon clash at the corner of Sunset and San Vicente is there violence? Is there murder?
They do fight, virtually.
Physically, do they fight?
Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?
The people or the…
Yes, there must be real people if it’s a real encounter with someone else.•
The one time I interviewed Werner Herzog, in 2005, I asked him how he survived the threatening situations he encountered while making his sometimes death-defying films and in his life. He replied: “I’ve been fortified by enough philosophy.” Ever since then, I’ve always asked myself if I’ve been similarly fortified, if I’ve read and thought enough so that even when I’m deeply shaken, there’s something essential within me that remains solid.
Herzog just did a Reddit AMA, which includes an exchange that speaks to this idea. The excerpt:
You’ve covered everything from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the impending overthrow of not-so-far-off futuristic artificial intelligence. What about humankind’s history/capability terrifies you the most?
It’s a difficult question, because it encompasses almost all of human history so far. What is interesting about this paleolithic cave is that we see with our own eyes the origins, the beginning of the modern human soul. These people were like us, and what their concept of art was, we do not really comprehend fully. We can only guess.
And of course now today, we are into almost futuristic moments where we create artificial intelligence and we may not even need other human beings anymore as companions. We can have fluffy robots, and we can have assistants who brew the coffee for us and serve us to the bed, and all these things. So we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are. And once we understand that, we can make our educated choices, and we can use our inner filters, our conceptual filters. How far would we use artificial intelligence? How far would we trust, for example, into the logic of a self-driving car? Will it crash or not if we don’t look after the steering wheel ourselves?
So, we should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books. Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that’s how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life. Although, it seems to elude us into a pseudo-life, into a synthetic life out there in cyberspace, out there in social media. So it’s good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely.•
“To his audience at the opera house, he described film-making as a ‘pilgrimage.’ In person, as on screen or page, he is off the wall and over the top and beyond the pale. He is a pilgrim on his way to a place that is really an idea: too far.
‘Ski-jumping,’ Herzog said. ‘It was the fever dream of my adolescence.’
He played clips of airborne jumpers in slow motion and commanded Brooklyn to scrutinise their faces.
Their lips rippled in alpine winds.
Herzog said: ‘The ecstasy of solitude!’
Holdengräber reminded him of the dictum, attributed to Blaise Pascal, that opens Lessons of Darkness, Herzog’s 1992 documentary: ‘The collapse of the stellar universe will occur – like creation – in grandiose splendour.’
Herzog repeated it. He said, ‘Actually, Pascal didn’t write that. I wrote that.’
Holdengräber said: ‘But it sounds so very like Pascal.’
‘Pascal should have written it,’ Herzog said, of the 17th-century philosopher. ‘That’s why I signed his name.'”
Herzog’s original German-language 1974 profile of ski-jumper Walter Steiner:
A great 1982 South Bank Show portrait of Werner Herzog broadcast as Fitzcarraldo, a film I think Eisenstein would have been proud to call his own, was nearing its screening at Cannes. When I interviewed the director a decade or so ago, he insisted to me that he was “clinically sane” but appreciated the journalists (“stooges,” he called them) who portrayed him as mad because he felt protected by the scary reputation.
Werner Herzog, one of my favorite filmmakers, discussing my least favorite Werner Herzog film, Nosferatu the Vampyre. Maybe I need to give this updating of German Expressionism another chance.Or perhaps it would have been better if he’d cast Fred Astaire as a stupid, stupid vampire. (Thanks Biblioklept.)
Whenever there is a succession of 3-D films, you know Hollywood is in trouble. When the studio system was in its dotage during the 1950s, before the industry knew enough to rejuvenate itself by handing over the keys to the motorcycle to Easy Riders and other wild-eyed independents, it relied on 3-D to fill the coffers. Right now, the Dream Factory in California is located more in Silicon Valley than Hollywood. Science fiction no longer predicts science as the technology sector has the better ideas. And the movie industry responds with an over-reliance on gimmicks.
While the hunger for 3-D has abated somewhat in America, the world market has yet been satisfied, so even the mad genius auteur Werner Herzog has been given the opportunity to work with the effect in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film is an exploration of the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, which was discovered in 1994 by Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet. It bears the most historical artwork known to humankind on its walls, elaborate drawings of megafauna, human beings and creatures that combine the two, which were made at least 32,000 years ago. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn’t a mere art-history documentary, but rather a tacit struggle between Herzog and the 3-D illusion itself, which has a knack for directing directors, for wrestling the story from their hands.
It’s not completely a fair fight, either. Herzog not only has to deal with technical necessities of 3-D but is also hampered by the fragility of the cave, which demands that Herzog work from bended knee (sometimes in a metaphorical sense, sometimes not), not use too many cameras or lights, not get too close, not get his hands dirty. Whether he has been running headlong into the maw of a bubbling volcano (“La Soufriere”) or dragging a riverboat over a mountain into the jungle (Fitzcarraldo), Herzog is no stranger to obstructions forming his art. He is, however, alien to not being allowed to challenge the elements and having to genuflect in awe rather than form an adversarial relationship.
Making this movie for History Films (a subsidiary of the History Channel) has its restrictions, too. In addition to being a great artist, Herzog is a canny journalist, asking questions others wouldn’t pose, tugging at loose threads that most would never notice. His films are amazing as much for his powers of observation as for his daring. In one scene the director interviews an archaeologist who used to be a circus man. A scene that would have been a long and fascinating digression in a usual Herzog film is instead glossed over in favor of more standard storytelling, a concession that seemingly was made for the producers.
That’s the overall tone of the film: handsome and reverential with the requisite 3D-motion shots, but not Herzogian, lacking his insane brilliance. Until the five-minute “Postscript” section, that is. Herzog discovers a nuclear power plant less than 20 miles from the priceless cave. A second startling discovery is a nearby greenhouse that uses the warm water runoff from the power plant to grow hothouse flowers and allow albino crocodiles to thrive. The past, the present and the future unite against odd scenes of ferocious reptiles in an almost operatic way. The Herzog magic emerges in these moments, and we see the wry storytelling and resourcefulness that always restores Hollywood once its gimmicks run aground. In these scenes, Herzog’s been able to traverse one of the biggest obstacles of his career, one that is more ominous than a volcano or jungle–technology itself.•
“Today Werner Herzog has chosen to be interviewed indoors. Perhaps it’s for the best. One of the more puzzling and improbable moments in the legendary 68-year-old German director’s career, and there have been many, came when he was doing a filmed interview for a BBC program called The Culture Show in 2006. He was standing a few miles from here on some barren scrubland in the Hollywood Hills, chosen so that the city of Los Angeles would be the backdrop falling away behind him, and he was explaining how nobody seems to care about his films in Germany when an unexpected noise interrupted him. Herzog flinched. Understandably so, because he had just been shot.
It has never been established who was doing the shooting—if it was more than just someone with an air rifle taking a random pop at a stranger for fun, it may have been because Herzog and the film crew were trespassing. Afterward, Herzog refused to call the police, fearing a SWAT-type overreaction, and he also declined, for the same reason, to seek medical help. Still, the pellet made its mark—under his mauve and pink windmill-motif boxer shorts, now blood-blotted, was a seeping entry wound near Herzog’s groin.
This shooting is an event he still chooses to play down—’It was kind of insignificant’—although I get the sense he also quite likes the opportunity to play it down. ‘It was just very silly,’ he insists. ‘I have been shot at, without being hit, much more seriously. What I experienced here was completely harmless.’ Barely worth noting. Though when I persist in challenging him to name one other person who has ever been shot in this way while doing a TV interview in America, he naturally has no answer. ‘The funny thing is, people sometimes believe I make things up, and nobody would believe it if it hadn’t been caught on tape. Nobody would have believed it.’
He is right. It seemed so unlikely, so preposterous, and yet somehow so perfectly Herzog. So much so, I tell him, that I think some people still suspect it was a great stunt he’d somehow arranged.
‘You may speculate as much as you want,’ says Herzog, a man whose own work frequently involves fascinating juxtapositions of fact and fantasy, and who is long accustomed to drawing such suspicions.”
I interviewed Werner Herzog once and asked him if Klaus Kinski was his muse. “No, we were collaborators,” he answered immediately. Considering that their turbulent relationship might have ended in a doube homicide, I wasn’t surprised with the director’s response when I asked if he missed Kinski. “No…only very rarely,” he answered calmly. Peter Geyer’s Jesus Christus Erlöser is a chronicle of Kinski’s crazed and doomed 1971 attempt at a spoken-word performance about Jesus Christ. (Thanks Documentarian.)
Physicist Lawrence Krauss probes the nexus between art and science in a conversation with one of my favorite novelists, Cormac McCarthy, and one of my favorite filmmakers, Werner Herzog. Listen here. (Thanks Open Culture.)
From Herzog’s look at the dark side of revolution, Even Dwarfs Started Small:
“God’s Angry Man,” Werner Herzog’s 1980 look at Los Angeles televangelist Gene Scott, follows the colorful Stanford grad who screamed at and threatened his television flock with pro-wrestling flair. Herzog’s portrait captures the holy man at the height of his powers. What became of Scott in the years after the film? He divorced and remarried in his dotage, becoming wedded to a pretty 32-year-old woman namedMelissa, who was previously known as porn star “Barbie Bridges.” Scott, who died in 2005, was remembered in a Los Angeles Timesobituary. An excerpt:
Gene Scott, the shaggy, cigar-smoking televangelist whose eccentric religious broadcasts were beamed around the world, has died. He was 75.
Scott died Monday after a stroke, family spokesman Robert Emmers said.
For three decades, Scott was pastor of Los Angeles University Cathedral, a Protestant congregation of more than 15,000 members housed in a landmark downtown building.
In the mid-1970s, Scott began hosting a nightly live television broadcast of Bible teaching. His nightly talk show and Sunday morning church services were aired on radio and television stations to about 180 countries around the world by his University Network.
Scott was most recognizable by his mane of white hair and scruffy beard.•
“How he moves and how he dances is phenomenal…Fred Astaire..it is somehow something else because it’s so absolutely and crazily stylized, it’s so remote from the real world as you can get. For only ten dollars you can remove yourself from reality as far as you can even imagine. And him singing, ‘Don’t Monkey with Broadway,’ and the way they are dancing, it’s just phenomenal. And the face of Fred Astaire is so enormously stupid. I have never seen a face that projects stupidity in such a bold way as he does. And lines of dialogue and the songs they are singing are so phenomenally stupid, and still I love it and I don’t know why. There’s something very dear to my heart. When I even think about Fred Astaire, I become mellow.”
“When I speak of assaults on our understanding of reality, I am referring to new technologies that, in the past twenty years, have become general articles of everyday use: the digital special effects that create new and imaginary realities in the cinema. It’s not that I want to demonize these technologies; they have allowed the human imagination to accomplish great things—for instance, reanimating dinosaurs convincingly on screen. But, when we consider all the possible forms of virtual reality that have become part of everyday life—in the Internet, in video games, and on reality TV; sometimes also in strange mixed forms—the question of what “real” reality is poses itself constantly afresh.
What is really going on in the reality TV show Survivor? Can we ever really trust a photograph, now that we know how easily everything can be faked with Photoshop? Will we ever be able to completely trust an email, when our twelve-year-old children can show us that what we’re seeing is probably an attempt to steal our identity, or perhaps a virus, a worm, or a “Trojan” that has wandered into our midst and adopted every one of our characteristics? Do I already exist somewhere, cloned, as many Doppelgänger, without knowing anything about it?
History offers one analogy to the extent of [change brought about by] the virtual, other world that we are now being confronted with. For centuries and centuries, warfare was essentially the same thing, clashing armies of knights, who fought with swords and shields. Then, one day, these warriors found themselves staring at each other across canons and weapons. Warfare was never the same. We also know that innovations in the development of military technology are irreversible. Here’s some evidence that may be of interest: in parts of Japan in the early seventeenth century, there was an attempt to do away with firearms, so that samurai could fight one another hand to hand, with swords again. This attempt was only very short-lived; it was impossible to sustain.
Disasters seem to have a knack for finding us, but some hearty, half-mad souls can’t help but gravitate to the maw of a volcano, believing there are answers to ineffable questions to be found in nature’s profane mouth. Director Werner Herzog has long been one of these hellbent philosophers and his 1976 documentary, “La Soufrière,” is a 30-minute meditation about his sojourn to Guadeloupe just as the eponymous volcano prepared to explode with the impact of five or six atomic bombs.
Approximately 75,000 inhabitants were evacuated from the Caribbean tempest, just before Herzog and his two camera operators arrived to seek out the few stragglers who refused to leave and to take what they believed would be the final images of the town before it was razed and charred. If the eruption was as massive as expected, well, there really was no exit strategy for the filmmakers.
The village’s utter desolation has a chilling beauty, as Herzog and his team wind through unmanned blockades and confused cattle to get within shouting distance of the angry vortex. They meet and interview their doppelgangers: a trio of native men who calmly, almost sluggishly, await their death by fire and rock.
“It was a comfort for us not having the law hanging around,” intones Herzog in his powerful voiceover narration, as the volcano ominously bubbles and steams. But the law of nature is ever-present, and, as always, demands control of the final cut.•
Nicolas Cage at his most overwrought has always seemed like a dead man who’s too restless to lie down, hoping that flailing hyperactivity will somehow force oxygen back into his lungs. He’s built for a necropolis and Martin Scorsese used that quality in Cage for Bringing Out the Dead. Werner Herzog has likewise tapped into that vibe in this second but non-sequel Bad Lieutenant film, which has the actor stumbling, stealing and snorting his way through New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
The Herzog and Cage pairing was always meant to be; the director’s eccentric, impressionistic vision is a perfect match for the wild-eyed actor who is almost doing an impression of himself. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a Big Easy cop with a hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes), a raft of addictions and a gambling problem, whose redemption–if it’s to arrive at all–is going to have come more from luck than effort. He’s ostensibly investigating a big murder case, but it’s just backdrop for extreme misbehavior and devastating guilt.
In one scene, a wasted, spectral McDonagh hides in a corner of a room with a battery-powered razor, feverishly trying to prevent an encroaching beard. But before long, it will be five o’clock and the shadow will return. (Available via Netflix and other outlets.)
From Maren Ade to Terry Zwigoff, there are close to 100 directors who did exceptional work over the past decade yet don’t have a film on Affllictor’s Top 20 Films of the Aughts list. But the difficult paring-down process is complete. In alphabetical order, here are the lucky devils who made the grade: