Being a human being in the year 2016 can be an anxiety-inducing experience in itself. Being a human being on the internet—that vast digital cesspool of wonderment, discovery, faves, likes, schadenfreude, memes, Twitter friends, anonymous trolls, social media, and social mania—is an infinitely more fraught reality to navigate.
But we’re all in this together. Even master filmmaker and New German Cinema icon Werner Herzog, who’s seen it all and knows you’re wrestling with profound fears about the world around you, the chaos of living, and the frightening unpredictability of the unknowable future, and is here to allay those fears with a kind of measured optimism, delivered in that unmistakable voice, a voice filled with an unperturbed Herzogian calm: “Don’t panic.”
Those were the words Herzog uttered, accompanied by a kindly smile, when the name Donald Trump came up in a recent conversation about his documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. The film is a feature-length exploration of the internet and its impact on human kind told in 10 parts, so naturally I showed Herzog the 10-minute video for Kanye West’s “Famous” and invited him to comment. (Watch and hear Herzog on Kanye here.)
In a short film filled with the eerie “doppelgangers” of celebs from Rihanna to Amber Rose to ’Ye and Kim K, it was Trump’s waxen figure that caught Herzog’s eye first. Earlier that day, the GOP nominee suggested that 2nd Amendment proponents use their right to bear arms to stop Hillary Clinton should she win the presidency. Herzog, who famously dealt with the insanely volatile antics of his longtime muse Klaus Kinski and lived to wax wise about it, offered a soothing take on Trump mania.
“Well, that’s a serious thing,” he said, drawing a deep breath. “But you know, he has almost exhausted his entire arsenal of… wild stuff, which would immediately be headlines in the media. There’s a phase now in the election where there’s scrutiny: Things that he says will be verified. What does he say about the wall between Mexico and America? Of course when you look closer at it, it’s a complete illusion that the Mexicans are going to pay for it. So, there’s time of scrutiny and sometimes he has to come back with even wilder stuff so that he stays somehow in the flashlight of attention.”
If Werner Herzog isn’t too worried about Trump fueling the trigger-happy with combustible rhetoric, maybe the rest of the country can find a little solace in his calm. “Don’t panic about it,” he smiled. “You should not. I’m not an American, and thank God I can see it from some distance. And I do believe that American voters can look beyond the flashlight, and the headlines, and opinion polls. I’m sure there’s a collective… a collective intelligence within the voters that would not allow the wildest of all imaginable solutions.”
“So, repose,” Herzog assured. “Go to vote, if you are an American! You’d better vote. Do the right thing. And you will see that Americans collectively are more intelligent than the opinion polls.”
Herzog, 73, has spent decades investigating the human condition onscreen in films about dreamers, explorers, and those who fall prey to the invisible forces of nature in all its forms, and in his own written musings observing life through his constantly searching mind. Born in Germany during WWII, he grew up in the remote reaches of Bavaria without the luxuries of midcentury modern life, and as legend has it, didn’t see his first movie until a traveling projectionist made it to his village in the mountains at the age of 11. He began making movies at the age of 19 with a 35mm camera stolen from the Munich Film School and hasn’t stopped since.
So it’s no coincidence that nowadays he still has that outsider’s liberation from the shackles of modern accoutrements. Even now, Herzog chooses to live as offline as he can—without a smartphone and using the internet as little as possible even as he shares utterly Herzogian observations on catching Pokémon and communicating via emoji. “My social network is our dinner table, which seats maximum six people,” he told me earlier this year. “My wife, me, and four guests maximum.”
That steadfast tech-aversion might make Herzog seem an odd choice to direct an incisive documentary on the internet, how we use it, and how it’s changing us in wild and alarming ways, but Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is actually a perfect match of distanced philosopher and ever-changing, all-encompassing subject.
He notes, with amusement, his discovery of doppelgangers online who imitate his unique Herzogian perspective on life and culture in memes and homage. The internet has utterly affected our own understanding of selfhood, he observes. That includes self-projections of who we are and what we selectively put out into the ether, as well as unintentional digital footprints we leave behind, because nothing posted online can ever really be scrubbed forever.
“It has happened before the internet and before Facebook, but it becomes so visible now, and it can propel to millions and millions of anonymous internet users out there,” Herzog said. “That’s a new dimension to it.”
And yet, he insists, making a movie about the internet and talking about it endlessly while promoting Lo and Behold hasn’t changed Herzog’s mind on the online life. He smiled. “I have a clear idea of what I’m doing with the internet. I’m responding to everything that’s going on. It hasn’t changed—with one exception. Very, very young ones are writing now, emails, and what I find very pleasant is all of a sudden 12-, 15-year-olds are ganging up with me.”
Tweens and teens, Herzog says, are constantly emailing him and opening dialogue with the filmmaker about his work—even if he has no idea how they seem to find his email address, other than contacting him through his website. “They comment, they ask questions. They have seen only a trailer and they come with wild questions. And they speak to me as if I’m in their age group! Just a little bit more savvy.”
And Herzog says he reads every message he receives. “Yes—what is directly sent to me. But of course a lot of junk mail is there. And I do have somehow an automatic system that distinguishes between junk mail and real mail. And this junk mail detector is almost one hundred percent on target! So I marvel at the algorithms that they must have in place.”
In spite of his avowed aversion for things like smartphones, social media, and the endless ways we amuse ourselves on the internet, this kind of digital interaction seems to gratify Herzog, who still uses the web to read the news, Google map his way around, and watch funny cat videos. What all the memefied imposters most seem to get wrong about Herzog is that he’s more bemused, realist inquisitor than relentlessly dour pessimist. Yet when asked if he considers himself an optimist, he doesn’t have an easy answer.
“I don’t feel comfortable with seeing myself as an optimist or a pessimist,” Herzog offered. “In a way I am optimistic because I do recognize that I, or all of us, live in an aimless universe. And we have to create at least a structure of clear aims. Whatever they are, that’s your individual business. I do feel comfortable with my own destiny. I feel comfortable with the films that I have done. I feel comfortable with the life, the way that I am conducting it. So in that respect, yes, I’m an optimist.”
“At the same time,” he added, “I was shooting in North Korea recently and I was shooting in Ethiopia, and scientists were unearthing fragments of early homo sapiens a hundred thousand years back. I asked one of them who’s very much deep into history: Do we have another hundred thousand years? And his answer is interesting.”
“He said, ‘We are a very interesting species. We collaborate. We fabricate. We produce. But at the same time, we are modifying our environment. We are responsible for the extinction of many species. We are even jeopardizing our own space in which we can survive and live.’ And he says—and this is an Ethiopian historian and paleontologist—he believes, and I do agree, that when we follow the projection lines of our civilization there will be a very critical time coming at us in only a thousand years from now. It’s not unthinkable that we will become extinct as a species.”
The Herzogian key to processing a future vision so bleak isn’t to worry, perhaps, but to take that information and turn it back on one’s own life—to examine how we live now, and how we might be living better.
“It’s not that I feel threatened by it,” he said. “We simply have to take a good, hard look at what our mistakes are and improve what we are doing. Like Drill, baby, drill—that’s outright stupid, and that’s one of the glorious overlooked sides of the internet. I read newspapers online, and every single time I read a newspaper I know that a chunk of wood didn’t have to be cut down and made into paper pulp. And since I am using the internet for emails, I do many things nowadays on email or even sometimes on Skype. Before, I would drive in my car. Today I drive 90 percent less than I did 20 years ago.”
“You see, it’s not that we should wait, that politics are so stupid they cannot come to an agreement about climate change. Forget about politics. It’s every single one of us. Think about, ‘Do I really need to use my car? Do I really need to leave the light switched on when I walk out of the room?’ There are certain automatic things. When I walk out, I don’t even think about it—I switch off the light.”
Since Herzog’s so bullish on life made better by the Internet Age, I ask, does he think it’s impacted that other dominant concern of 21st century humans—love—for better or worse?Herzog, who’s been married to photographer Lena Herzog since 1999, lit up at the subject and broke into a warm grin. “I think it’s basically the same,” he mused thoughtfully. “It doesn’t matter what your tools are. It’s the quality. The quality of an encounter … and the kind of emotional attachment, the kind of respect and love you have… is the only thing that counts.”