Werner Herzog goes online

In his latest documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog explores the glory and tragedy of life in the digital age. He tells Henry Oliver why he still doesn't like using the internet.

The legend of Werner Herzog is filled with a raw physicality. Other than his films, the first things you might hear about him is that he once walked from Munich to Paris, that he pulled a gun on actor Klaus Kinski during the filming of Aguirre, Wrath Of God, that he ate his shoe live on stage, that he was shot by an air rifle during a BBC TV interview (and didn’t seem that bothered). He has an annual three-day film seminar where he teaches “the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilaration of being shot at unsuccessfully. The athletic side of filmmaking. The creation of your own shooting permits. The neutralization of bureaucracy. Guerrilla tactics. Self reliance”. No laptops and cellphones are allowed.

On one hand, it seems odd that he chose to make Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a documentary about life in the age of the internet. On the other, who better to examine life on what for him is a foreign land to be explored with the untrampled curiosity of a foreign correspondent?

From his home in Los Angeles (“I don't even have a cell phone,” he says, “you're calling me on my landline”), he tells me he limits his internet use for ‘cultural’ reasons: “I do not want to be permanently connected, I want to examine the world not through applications on my cell phone, I want to explore it by reading or travelling on foot. At my kitchen table, I cook and invite friends and we have a deep and wonderful conversation over a good meal.”

“We examine the real world too much through applications on our cell phones and I think children should still dig a hole in the ground or climb up a tree and build a treehouse," he continues. “We have not learned to build in filters. How do we filter this incredible amount of information that is out there? How do we evaluate it? Many people cannot evaluate information anymore because they rely too much on their cellphones and on the internet.”

Herzog had been invited to make a series of short videos about the internet for YouTube, but knew, as soon as he began, that the subject was better suited to a feature length film. Despite not using it much in his own life, Herzog became awed by the way the internet has immeasurably changed every aspect of life on Earth, and its potential to continue that change, perhaps even enabling human life away from Earth. The film explores Mars colonisation, self-driving cars, hacking, cyber-bullying, cyber-warfare, internet addiction, Tweeting monks, a town off the grid, crowdsourcing cancer cures, artificial intelligence, and, ultimately, what it means to be human in the middle of it all.

“The internet is a monumental step in civilisation,” he says in his deep, Bavarian accent, which cuts to your core, making every word sound as if were burdened by both all the cruelty of an uncaring universe and the joy to be found in the existential freedom of it all. (That really is how he talks in real life.) “It is as monumental as the introduction of fire into the lives of prehistoric human beings or like the introduction of electricity into our civilisation.

“The funny thing is that in science fiction, when you look back at the 19th and 20th century, nobody had it on the radar. Science fiction spoke about flying cars and colonies in outer space. Nothing like this has ever happened. Everybody overlooked the real changer of everything, the internet. It is huge and massive and we have to face it and we have to use it with the right filters and the right understanding and then it has its glories. There is no doubt there is glorious things and no doubt that there is terrifying things like cyber-bullying and teenagers committing suicide because of internet comments and cyber-spying. Of course, the internet has all those negative sides as well. Like human beings.”

I ask him whether making the film changed his mind at all, whether the wondrous uses of the internet in his film have influenced his use of it. He says his “cultural reasons” still persist. And he’s worried about surveillance. He doesn’t like being traceable, whether by Google and Facebook or by the CIA and the NSA. “They know where you are because the battery on your cellphone is still alive, they know with whom you talk and for how many minutes, where you were, how you move,” he says. “Nobody knows where I am and how I'm moving because I simply do not have the tracking instrument where you can find out where I am. It probably took two weeks for this conversation between us to be organised.”

So, I ask, as the digital world encroaches on all aspects of our lives, how do we stay human?

“I would advise anyone who is young and who is using the internet to just not only read the tweets and the Facebook entries. Just go into deep reading. Read books. Read poetry from Roman and Greek antiquity. Read a novel from Russia at the end of the 19th century. Deep reading gives you a sense of storytelling, it gives you a sense of conceptual deeper thinking and, of course, it is neglected at the moment.”

We get cut off by the PR person, who interjects with a beep. I thank him and say goodbye, still weirded out that that voice, the voice of Grizzly Man, and Burden of Dreams, and White Diamond, and My Best Fiend, and Penguins of Madagascar, has been talking to me.

“You're actually almost a day ahead of me,” he says over the beeps. “I would like, if we had more time, to know about the future.”

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is showing around New Zealand as part of the International Film Festival.