Arts & Culture News

Werner Herzog Is Ready for Your Questions, Perhaps

The Antichrist, the embodiment of evil, manifests itself in the internet. The wired world isolates humans, ruins them mentally and physically and releases their darkest impulses, yet humanity has grown so dependent on it that one good solar flare could be enough to fry the 'net and civilization along with it.

So that would make it a bad thing, right? 

Not necessarily, says director Werner Herzog, whose latest documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, sketches the inception and state of the internet through a series of interviews with its creators, innovators and victims. Among the latter is a couple who found themselves viciously attacked by online trolls after photos of their daughter's body, mangled in an auto accident, cropped up online. Others include patients in treatment for addiction to online gaming and a collection of people who have fled to the hills of West Virginia to escape what they say are the painful physical affects of microwave radiation.

Herzog, the 73-year-old German auteur whose films include Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, as well as more than 50 others, famously avoids social media himself. "Those who watch television or are too much on the internet, they lose the world," he wrote in one of his four — ever — tweets. (The last, from 2010: "I have a dictum: Yes, shoot a porno film in 3-D. But not a romantic comedy.") Yet for all that, Lo and Behold does not come across as a screed condemning the internet. If anything, it's ambivalent about the wired future.

"Within the universe, which is aimless, I think I have found very clear aims for myself, and insofar I would say I'm an optimist," Herzog told the Observer by phone in advance of his appearance in Dallas this Wednesday at the Winspear Opera House. "But you cannot point it at, let's say, the internet itself and say is it good or is it bad or should we be optimistic or pessimistic? The internet does not have such qualities. Like, let's say electricity — should we be optimistic that we have electricity or is electricity good or bad?"

Those values attach to the hand and heart wielding the tool, not the tool itself. He chooses not to engage in social media, he says, but doesn't condemn it. "That's a choice I have made, and I'm not nostalgic," he says. "I'm just into more solid social exchanges, and that would be my dinner table for example, over a good steak."

Not surprising, then, that Lo and Behold devotes few of its 100 minutes running time to details about technology, choosing instead to focus on its subjects' relationship to the technology — a young roboticist, for instance, whom Herzog asks if he loves his creation (yes), or the hacker who happily recounts how he exploited the internet's greatest vulnerability, the gullible people who use it.

"Social media as they are, are an extraordinary tool. It only depends how we are using it and how, for example, young people in particular start to develop a known filter and understand what they are doing and conceptually understand the tool much better," Herzog says. "That's not really developed yet. It's a little bit like cars. At the time of Elvis, we had drive-thru restaurants, and in Las Vegas you can still do drive-thru weddings. You can still have a drive-thru divorce. But today our way to deal with cars has changed. We try to have more fuel efficient cars, cleaner and eventually ... self driving. We have learned how to use this tool much better."

When it comes to his own tool, film, Herzog is a master of efficiency. The day after his stop in Dallas he heads to Telluride, Colorado, to show his latest documentary Into the Inferno, about volcanoes. After that comes Salt and Fire, a fictional work set in Bolivia.

"I'm too fast for the distribution systems," he says with a chuckle, though oddly, he says he's not overtaxed. 

"I'm working, how shall I say ... I'm in a very relaxed mode. I'm not hectic. I'm not a workaholic," he says.

It's curious to think about about what a workaholic version of Herzog might accomplish, but he'll be bringing that relaxed mode to Dallas. He has some familiarity with the city, he says, and a basic outline sketched out for his talk here, but not surprising for a man with such an eclectic intellect, he's ready to expand in any direction, depending on his audience.

"I'm good with spontaneous exchanges with the audience," he says. "I may at a certain point turn over to questions of the audience. It sometimes becomes much more interesting than me just lecturing."

An Evening with Werner Herzog takes place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street St. Tickets are available here.
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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams