Werner Herzog explores and challenges the net – as the dreamy documentarist he continues to be.

Endre Eidsaa

Department of Art and Media Studies Faculty of Humanities

In Jean-Jacques Rousseus’ Discourse on Inequality (1755), an imagined developmental story about the human, he claims that it is not the ability of thinking which distinguishes human from animal, but our distinctiveness as a free being.

This feeling would be important to the 1800s Romantics, who reacted to the Age of Enlightenment’s worship of human reason.

Did not all major victories of the Age of Enlightenment – information about the falsehoods of religious dogmas and the liberating power of thought – happen at the expense of the attention lavished on the intuitive, sensitive and dreamy which also characterise the human world? This was the belief of many of the artists during was deemed the romantic revolution (which started around 1790), and which initiated a new focus on a creative irrationality – like love, passion, madness and dreams – which was able to break the horizons of the sense and release us from a «common sense» which limited our freedom.

The German film maker Werner Herzog has since the 1960s created visionary films which continue this romantic sensibility. Where German Post War directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hans-Jürgen Syderberg and Alexander Kluge used a studied intellectual and explicitly political approach to film making, Herzog, to a greater degree, embraced a more intuitive, physical and poetic film language, which explores human’s irrational visions and dreamy longing in a harsh and often indifferent environment.

Ecstatic truth. It has, for Herzog, been important to seek «fresh images» (as he describes it in Herzog on Herzog, Paul Cronen, 2002) in a world full of clichés. He is interested in people who explore, see and think through their naive, occasionally deaf-mute ambling, through their passionate and dreamy yoke: Through his worldwide journeys – the most famous being probably his recording of Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian jungle – the film maker has sought what he describes as an «ecstatic truth». The truth is not in the documentarist’s observation or in a deskbound intellectual’s analysis – it must be conjured up by a wandering mystic and constructed by a conscientious poet.

In his latest film, Lo and Behold – Reveries of the Interconnected World (2016), a documentary on the internet, this Herzogian sensibility encounters and problematises an information climate where artificial intelligences increasingly organise the world. The film is divided into ten chapters, and lets a variety of internet scientists, users and victims speak. The film is both sceptical, humorous and enthusiastic in its examination of the internet as a phenomenon, and not least insistently tragic in its portrayal of a partly indifferent and hard-hearted information society.

Some will of course laugh, but Herzog manages to communicate a credible and resolute empathy in his meeting with the extreme.

lo-and-behold-reveries-of-the-connected-world«Nature’s scream. » In one of Herzog’s many unforgettable 1970s films, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), we witness a society’s perception of nature through the uncultivated gaze of a person who has been incarcerated in a cave all his life. Scientific estimations, calculations and frameworks of comprehension, as well as cultural customs are to him entirely alien. He views the world with a look wherein an apple is able to jump over a twig on the path; to Kaspar Hauser, anthropomorphisation (humanisation of nature) is a natural way to exist, not a cultural construction or miscalculation.

«Are you not able to hear the terrible scream that surrounds you, that which people normally call silence? » This enigmatic question opens the film; is perhaps Kaspar in closer contact with an original world language – a gestural nature language which scientific lingo slowly but surely is disconnecting us from? Through its elegiac tone, the film struggles with what Rousseau noted in his aforementioned book: «The first human language, the most widespread, the most apt, and the only lingo humans needed before it became important to influence gatherings, was nature’s scream. »

As Kaspar lays on the sterile autopsy table, the men of science comment that he had a faulty brain and happily close their books. But we sense that Kaspar had dreams, and that he lived in an ecstasy and melancholy which will remain sealed to scientific illumination. There is a madness in life which cannot be captured by societal explanatory tools – and The Enigma of Kaspar implies something which becomes a recurring theme in Herzog’s work: Prior to rational understanding, we inhabit an intuition which grabs hold of the world, it experiences, and lets us dream in and of it.

Inspiration and empathy. Though Herzog often has focused on people on the fringes, and seen the world as from an alien’s perspective, his films often circle around an unfathomable humanity: the ability to step outside of nature’s ties and articulate dreams.

Lo and Behold can be viewed as an extension of this interest, and can in a sense also be seen as a direct continuation of an interest Herzog displayed in the exemplary entitled film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). Somewhere in Lo and Behold, he films a scientist’s mathematical drawings on a chalkboard as if artistic sketches done by a dreamy being, akin to cave paintings. An extreme close-up of the writing’s typography, materiality, style and thought converts this calculation into inspiration.

Besides, Herzog has, during the last few years, found his unique talking-heads-style (frontal close-ups of people talking to an interviewer allegedly located behind camera), where he, rather than providing the interviewees much authority (impersonal distribution of information), obtains a particular individuality and a specific manner of thinking and expressing.

This leads to funny moments, but also to tragic portraits – as in the case of the family who experienced the loss of their little daughter and had the picture of her dead body widely published online. The mother explains, in what must surely be the most intense and obsessive close-up of the year – all staring eyes and mascara dark as hell – that she is convinced the internet is the devil incarnate.

Some will of course laugh, but Herzog manages to communicate a credible and resolute empathy in his meeting with the extreme. Rather than letting the encounter with the family become sensationalist, Herzog’s approach is here something of «ecstatic truth»: Is there not something of the truth in this woman’s experience, which in all its hysteria can carry an insight we should all empathise with?

Brilliant. Herzog is not interested in the accountant’s cool gaze, and meets the interviewees with a keen earnestness and poetic sincerity which also hold the comical and enthusiastic – as well as the deeply tragic and sceptical. The tone of Lo and Behold is encapsulated by the image of a group of monks, each clutching a mobile phone. They are standing there indifferently, but also as secretive and probably dreamy silhouettes in front of an extending skyline. Summarising is also Herzog’s reply to a scientist who suggests that robots of the future might make better films than Herzog himself: «Hell no! »

Lo and Behold is a film about the many aspects of the internet and «artificial intelligences» as manmade inventions. But, it is not least, a brilliant film about the differences between man and machine.

 

 


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