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Legendary filmmaker explores how the internet reflects human nature

August 19, 2016 at 6:10 PM EDT
In his newest film, Werner Herzog is again asking existential questions -- this time, about the internet. In “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” released in theaters on Friday, Herzog analyzes this ever-expanding fortress of information, and how it promises possibilities of both progress and catastrophe. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Herzog about his latest inquiry into human nature.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: The promise and peril of the internet is the subject of Werner Herzog’s new documentary out today.

The legendary filmmaker was recently honored with an achievement award from the American Film Institute for his work in documentary film.

In Washington, Jeffrey Brown caught up with Herzog to discuss the new film and more.

WERNER HERZOG, Documentarian/Filmmaker: This is the birthplace of the internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his new documentary, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” filmmaker Werner Herzog is again asking big questions.

WERNER HERZOG: An explosion of information technology on the internet has led to some of its greatest glories.

JEFFREY BROWN: This time about the internet.

WOMAN: The internet is a manifestation of evil itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Its history, its impact, good and bad, on all of us.

MAN: That is the goal, to have a team of soccer playing robots defeat the FIFA world champion.

WERNER HERZOG: I try to be after something that is deeply reverberating inside of our souls, some deep echo from — even from prehistory. What makes us humans? How do we communicate? Where are we going at this moment? Something for an audience where they can step outside of themselves, where they can be almost like in ecstasy of truth, some sort of deep illumination.

And that’s what I’m trying in documentaries and in feature films.

JEFFREY BROWN: That search played out in early dramas, such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” in 1972, about a mad conquistador seeking gold in Peru, and, 10 years later, “Fitzcarraldo,” the story of a man obsessed with bring opera to the Amazon jungle.

That film would become famous for what happened behind the scenes, as Herzog insisted on having his actors and crew actually drag a large boat over land, rather than using special effects.

Herzog’s quest for ecstatic truth also came through in documentaries, such as “Grizzly Man” in 2005, telling of a man who lived among bears in Alaska before being killed by them.

MAN: Occasionally, I am challenged. And in that case, the kind warrior must, must, must become a samurai.

WERNER HERZOG: This cave had been perfectly sealed for tens of thousand of years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in 2010’s the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which explored prehistoric cave paintings in Southern France.

WERNER HERZOG: These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some 70 films to date, a remarkable career, one he’s insisted on building his own way, despite setbacks.

In a series of interviews you did over the years, it’s in a book called “A Guide for the Perplexed,” you speak of the — quote — “cumulative humiliations and defeats” that you have experienced.

And I wonder…

WERNER HERZOG: Yes. Who has not?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, who has not, but what did you learn from them, how important are those?

WERNER HERZOG: You see, I’m completely self-taught. I never went to film school. I was never assistant anywhere.

So, of course, I learned by trial and error. My first featurettes were my film school. And, of course, until today, none one of my first films has ever been sold, but it’s OK, money lost, but film gained. And there was a some sort of a dialectic of defeat. Somehow, it converts into something that pushed me forward.

Yes, I have learned a lot through defeats, and, until today, it’s — I’m still haunted by defeats, and they do happen. Sometimes, a film of mine is rejected. And how do you deal with it? And you have to learn how to deal with it and survive anyway.

MAN: It consists of modems, CPU, logic units.

JEFFREY BROWN: His new film, “Lo and Behold,” is divided into 10 chapters, and features interviews with early internet pioneers.

MAN: And it was here that the first message was sent. A revolution began.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robotics engineers pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence.

MAN: It’s one of my favorites, actually.

WERNER HERZOG: Beautiful. Do you love it?

MAN: Yes, we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And leading thinkers about what may come, including life on Mars.

MAN: I mean, right now, we can’t even get one person to Mars.

WERNER HERZOG: I would come along. I wouldn’t have a problem. One-way ticket.

MAN: Sounds great.

WERNER HERZOG: I would be your candidate.

MAN: OK.

WERNER HERZOG: Here, all of a sudden, we have a revolution in — in communication, and it is — it is really, truly big. It is as big as the introduction of fire to the human race, or the introduction of electricity into our lives.

And this is very, very big. And I see how rapidly things are changing. And, of course, there is a fascination, although I use it very little. I do use the internet for e-mails, and sometimes for Google Maps, and that’s basically it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s it?

WERNER HERZOG: And I don’t use a cell phone.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do not? Why?

WERNER HERZOG: No, I do not want one. I do not want it for cultural reasons. I do not want to be available all the time.

I want to have time to think and to touch somebody, and have a meal across my kitchen table without a cell phone, being constantly on tweets.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, at the end of “Lo and Behold,” one isn’t sure whether to be hopeful or not, right? There’s lots of reasons that you give us to be very fearful, right?

If the robots don’t get us, then the sun flares might get us. What about you, I wonder? Are you hopeful?

WERNER HERZOG: Well, I couldn’t say that, because not only the internet is very fragile, and if that collapses, our civilization is going to collapse, and there will be billions of people dead, because we cannot step back into hunting and foraging.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that leaves you?

WERNER HERZOG: It leaves me with the idea we’d better anticipate what’s going on. We take our right steps today and now. And we’d better avoid, that we are overdependent on, let’s say, the internet.

We’re overdependent on other things. We are dangerously overpopulated.

JEFFREY BROWN: But for however many years we have left, no lack of subjects clearly for you?

WERNER HERZOG: No, I think it’s like burglars in the middle of the night in my kitchen uninvited, and they come swinging at me. So I’d better deal with what’s the most ferociously swinging. And the last one really swinging, coming at me, was “Lo and Behold.”

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Werner Herzog, thank you so much.

WERNER HERZOG: You are very welcome.

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