Lo and Behold: The expanding ecstasies of Werner Herzog
"The Internet is not good or evil or dark or light-hearted. It's humans. So you have to ask a question about human beings."
Every once in a while, say every year or so, I – by some chance encounter or rising feeling or rather the coincidence of the two – spend a bit of time re-experiencing the films, writings, and interviews of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, as well as seeing what he's been working on recently. This time through, Marc Maron's recent interesting podcast with him was what sent me down the wonderful and familiar path, which I have found to be all the more exciting because of what occasioned the interview. For some time, the 73 year old filmmaker – often caricatured as some atavistic and romantic brooder, a novel old eccentric – has been expressing some interest in science, technological breakthroughs, and the future of our society. Encounters at the End of the World, his 2008 film, was about the unique lives and work of scientists living in Antarctica. Lawrence Krauss, the scientist and rather likable popularizer of modern debates, has done well in recent years to get interesting people across mediums together to talk about science and art. In 2011 he invited Herzog and Cormac McCarthy – the un-ignorable American author of The Road and Blood Meridian – to discuss, among other things, Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the discovery of exceedingly well-preserved cave paintings from 30,000 B.C. (this film was shot in 3D, and a good use of it).
And as of today, the release of one of four films he was recently finished, Lo And Behold, is an occasion to look at the speed of new technologies – in particular the Internet – and their interaction with us and our culture. Whenever a person in one's youth – poet, scientist, thinker – thrills you with beauty, hope, and as Herzog would say, “a coherent world-view,” he or she is forever a source of pleasure to revisit. But in the rare cases when these figures find a way to stay interesting – and interested, and in love with the world – the pleasure is ten-fold. Not only for the innate desire in us to see a person age gracefully, but also to suggest something else about the world. Chekhov said in The Student, speaking in awe of the interaction of the past and present, “[I]t seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of the chain: he touched one end, and the other moved.”
For some ten or fifteen years, Werner Herzog has seen his popularity and profile rise dramatically. His thick Bavarian accent is unmistakable, his gnomic quotes about life and death and nature are abundant, and his gaze arresting and available for rent as a Hollywood villain (Jack Reacher Spoiler Within). For this combination of traits, our American society such as it is will gather around in admiration, mockery, and memes. Add to this the stories, some of them undoubtedly true, of his adventures in film making (which thrilled me as well as so many others as a teenager, scouring the Internet, looking for something to esteem, in much the same way boys' adventure magazines must have once done) has all the makings of an international cult figure. Pulling a ship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, Eating his shoe, tying himself to the hood of a car to film driving scenes, riding a captainless ship down the Pongo rapids for runaway boat scenes, getting shot mid-interview, getting captured in Africa, capturing a volcano in Guadeloupe, jumping into a cactus for dwarfs, making a movie with a cast under hypnosis...you see I'm liable to go on for a long while this way, because I still so enjoy his stories as much as his films. More than anything - and much like his friend Philippe Petit, the subject of the excellent Man On Wire – it was a pleasure to realize people like this actually exist in this world, in my lifetime, and within grasping distance of my generation. It was not only a pleasure but produced a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for what, or to what, it's not possible to say.
An excellent discussion appeared earlier this year between Herzog and the author Robert Pogue. They discuss reading, making films, and take all kinds of grand detours and tell great stories. When discussing The Peregrine – a book by J.A. Baker and a mutual favorite of theirs – Pogue calls to Herzog's attention the various technical errors Baker was accused of by falcon experts and amateur enthusiasts. His enduring question was, if a work of art has factual inaccuracies, does that reduce its worth? Herzog scowled at the question: “That's what I say about movie making: 'it's the accountant's truth you are after. You get a straight-A you idiot'” and “the ornithologists should be denied to read this book!,” to laughter. But Pogue did well to go along, and cornered him, “in defense of facts,” with a quote from Henry David Thoreau:
“If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”
Werner was by no means carried away by the beauty of the prose: “No. I crave many other things beyond reality. It's a very impoverished life if you go only for that.”
It's in this way that he walks – has walked, across six decades filming – the high wire of life, and navigates the dueling tensions of the external world and the world of dreams. He sees a new idea or event. He notes it, marvels at it, admits it into his storehouse of knowledge. He really is rather a practical person. No film maker can really be immersed in the clouds, such are the demands of the trade. But the rhythm of the dreamer, the poet, the romantic, is the thing that seems to lead him by the nose. And he returns the favor. It was through him I discovered the wonderful literary journalism of Ryszard Kapuscinski, or the wild 18th century mind of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (or Tristram Shandy's Laurence Sterne). It was through him I learned of his early collaborator, the wonderful German composer Florian Fricke of Popul Vuh. And following the linked discussion I have now been harried to purchase of copy of The Peregrine, not to mention Virgil's Georgics (Herzog reads a selection of this in which plague has entered the stables. A horse “forgetting its being, forgetting its pasture” is treated with brutal precision by Virgil, whose poetry sounds rather contemporary and yet - “God grant such madness, not to ourselves, but to our enemies.” - still ancient). One way of assessing a person is by their taste in other artists, as well as their willingness to share them.
One final anecdote to illustrate the way he walks alongside reality and mysticism (or why not hear Werner tell the story 19:35 into this video?). In 1974, Herzog heard that Lotte Eisner, the incomparable German film critic, was dying at age 80 or so. Eisner had been the one surviving link – for many young post-war German filmmakers – to the oasis of the past. Eisner had known Murnau, had a vast first-person knowledge of early German cinema, and Herzog's fatherless generation of artists, and Herzog in particular, were loathe to surrender a bridge over so wide a gap. By some strange flight of whimsy, he decided that if he walked to where Eisner lived, she would survive. Crucially, she lived in Paris and he in Munich, some five hundred miles away during one of the worst snowstorms Germany had seen in years. He did make it to her, and she did survive. (The lasting artifact of this “traveling on foot” was his book Of Walking in Ice, which are from Herzog's journals en route. It is more or less poetry, and very lonely and beautiful.) Herzog does not explicitly claim the mystic's credit for her survival; the journey seems to him to justify itself. Though he cannot help but finish the story. Some eight years later Eisner calls on him again; this time he travels to her in a more normal way. Arriving, he finds her nearly blind and immobile.
He recounts her dilemma: “She said 'there's still this spell upon me that I must not die, can you lift it?' and I said 'Lotte yes it's OK now if you die'...and she said 'I am saturated with life'...biblical. Lebe-satt...In German, it's a very beautiful expression. And I said 'yeah it's lifted' and eight days later she died. And it was fine. It was good.”
In the Maron Podcast, Werner chides Marc for taking too dour a reading of his new film about the Internet and connectivity. “Well I enjoyed the movie but I didn't sleep well,” says Maron. “I found myself terrified by the end of it...I should be doing something to protect, what? There's no way out, really.” Herzog laughs. “Yes of course there is. Why are you sounding so doomed? It's kind of weird.” And later “The Internet isn't good or evil. Nor is electricity. It doesn't have qualities beyond the technical qualities.” Maron admits he might be bringing his own cynicism to the documentary, and says that in itself is interesting. But he adds he doesn't “want to think about a world where [the Internet and connected society] goes wrong. I don't even want to entertain that thought right now” “We should” insists Herzog, “...because we can take very easy precautions individually.”
I was struck that this kind of subtle misunderstanding happens quite a lot with Herzog. When critics and fans alike remark on his 'dark' visions, in many cases it hasn't occurred to him to think of them that way. They are just visions, just remarks, just normal things to notice about the world. They can be interesting, dark, overwhelming, amusing, pleasurable all at once, and his films contain as much humor and warmth as they do brooding and death. It's strange that some remark only on the darkness.
Looking around (the Internet, I mean) I found a few bits and pieces of other recent interview material in which Herzog discusses, with many a young journalist, his feelings on the 'connected world.' If I'm worried that his new film will see him lapse into a kind of dour-old-German shtick, the following video in particular is heartening. He really is one of those rare people whose enthusiasm is unafraid of generational or cultural barriers. I'm even tempted to say he is turning into a reliable and honest bridge between the new and the old worlds. But then I hear him saying 'It's all one world, you idiot! One world!'