Web critic Werner Herzog explores digital future in new documentary | Film | DW | 19.08.2016
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Web critic Werner Herzog explores digital future in new documentary

He's famous for criticizing the stupidity of internet users and avoiding the web. Now Werner Herzog even met with SpaceX giant Elon Musk for his latest film on the future - and risks - of the digital revolution.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog is driven by boundless curiosity. In Germany, he's become a household name with films like "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," but the German director is also known for his documentaries.

In his 1971 film "Handicapped Future," Herzog focused his camera on the lives of disabled people. He made a cinematic monument to Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner with "The Dark Glow of the Mountains" in 1985, and memorialized an animal rights activist eaten by a bear in 2005's "Grizzly Man."

His documentaries have also been a hit with audiences. Most notably with "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in 2010, he descended into the Chauvet caves in southern France to film the ancient cave paintings in 3-D.

Werner Herzog in 'Lo and Behold, Copyright: Magnolia Pictures

Werner Herzog in 'Lo and Behold'

Curious and impartial

Now, Herzog has taken on the internet. In his latest film, "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World," he has chosen to focus on the development and future of the networked world.

Herzog has always insisted that his features have nothing to do with visible reality, and by no means do they present a true picture of the world. In contrast, this new film is relatively conventional. Whereas in earlier works Herzog explored the boundaries between documentary and fiction, "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World" can be seen as a classic documentary.

Herzog often emphasizes that he doesn't own a cell phone, and only turns on his computer to write emails or use Google Maps. But in his new film, he nonetheless shows a fascination for the possibilities of a networked world and artificial intelligence. Herzog is particularly interested in the people behind these developments: computer and robot specialists, hackers, tinkerers and technicians.

Doomsday scenario and euphoria

The digital revolution is one of humanity's greatest innovations, Herzog said in January at the film's world premiere at the Sundance Festival in Utah. After many other festival screenings in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe, the documentary is premiering in North American cinemas this weekend.

With limited personal experience with the internet, Herzog approached the subject as an outsider, "following his curiosity" to express his "awe and excitement" at the subject matter, as he said at Sundance.

In subsequent interviews, however, he has also expressed his skepticism about many online developments, most notably social media. "So far, I haven't read a single tweet that I've found interesting," he once said. His social media activities take place at home around the kitchen table with guests, he says with a smirk.

In "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World," Herzog spoke with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who raved about his vision of a Mars inhabited by humans.

Dr. Leonard Kleinrock in the film 'Lo and Behold' by Werner Herzog, Copyright: Magnolia Pictures

Leonard Kleinrock is an IT pioneer

He also interviewed, among others, IT pioneer Leonard Kleinrock and a software specialist from India, who enthusiastically showed off his soccer robots.

Herzog comes off as fascinated by these visions of the future, while at the same time allowing the interviews to speak for themselves. He leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether to share in the enthusiasm, or simply dismiss the ideas as crazy. Herzog simply asks the questions, which he sees as his primary task - at least when dealing with this, for him, rather strange topic.

Skeptics also have their say

Herzog also makes room for skepticism in his film, giving voice to critics of the digital revolution - and here, his personal views peek through. He interviews a woman who has chosen to drop out of society, retreating into the woods of West Virginia to get away from mobile phone transmissions. He also speaks with an embittered mother whose daughter has suffered a barrage of hate mail after being horribly injured in a car accident. She calls the internet the "work of the devil."

Herzog also wonders about the consequences for the networked world, should solar flares ever threaten Earth in the future. Here, he refers to the solar storm of 1859, known as the Carrington Event, which caused enormous damage to the telegraph networks of the day."Such an outbreak could bring an end to our modern civilization," says Herzog.

Film still from 'Lo and Behold' by Werner Herzog, Copyright: Magnolia Pictures

"Have the monks stopped meditating?"

What most scares him about the web, however, is the massive stupidity displayed by people online, Herzog said at Sundance.

A scene in the film illustrates this point particularly well. Torn between fascination and skepticism, Herzog narrates a scene in which a group of Buddhist monks walk in front of an ultramodern skyline of a big city, asking "Have the monks stopped meditating?"

It's only at second glance that the scene becomes clear: The monks aren't bowing their heads in prayer or meditation. Instead, they're all looking at their cell phones.

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