2016; written and directed by Werner Herzog; 98 mins
“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to it’s harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of it’s glory, of it’s magnificence.” – Alan Watts
This notion is quoted by a JCB operating, Antarctic dwelling Russian philosopher in Werner Herzog‘s 2007 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World and it’s stayed with me for many years for reasons as yet unknown to me above and beyond simple fascination. There are very few arthouse directors of whom you’d happily, amongst friends, call yourself a fan but I am a fan of Werner Herzog! It’s such a treat to see a film of his particularly after an unusually long gap of four years between 2011’s Into the Abyss and 2015’s Queen of the Desert (which turned up at the smallest local cinema recently and I failed to see). I say “unusually long” because he is prolific to say the least. This is the 13th feature of his I’ve seen and that’s still only a fraction of his work!
In this documentary, Herzog and regular cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger turn their camera on the internet in what is, much like Encounters, a series of vignettes (in this case, ten chapters) essaying different facets of computing, robotics and our relationship with them. Starting with the first internet pioneers in the late 60s and traversing such subjects as Internet addiction, radiation sickness, solar flares disrupting communications, A.I. and the abusers around the net, the film looks at our latest global revolution and whether we’re up to our own task.
One topic of particular interest was the idea that if, in the future, the internet becomes as all encompassing as some scientists and analysts think it might (i.e. no computers but your surroundings programmed to your personal preferences) but remains ungoverned, then where does that leave us in terms of accountability and culpability? Will we have to mature past the point of perennial blame-shifting that we currently find ourselves in? Most definitely but then what becomes of the twats and what future twattery will manifest from the new technology?
I thought it would be doom and gloom from this director who believes that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder” but no. It seems more cautionary than anything else which is refreshing from an older person. He seems to see the awesome human achievement and potential of the internet but is also clear-eyed about it’s – and by extension our – shortcomings both present and future. That human factor struck home too because it always worries me when people talk about the problems caused by Facebook and Twitter. It’s social media: we are not at the behest of it, whatever Twitter ‘says’ is us, whether alone or en masse. Blaming social media is like blaming the toilet for the smell after you’ve shat in it.
Anyway, it’s a good mix: all thought-provoking but not necessarily wall-to-wall misery. Each interviewee is given the amount of respect they deserve, respectively. The family who were victims of the most hideous cyber-bullying are treated with utmost sensitivity whereas a slightly smug computer entrepreneur is taken down a peg or two. And Herzog has a sense of humour and a keen eye for the absurd (note the scene of footballing robots) but it’s balanced beautifully with the weightier topics of man’s place in the universe. There’s great use of music in here, which compliments that balance too, including two wonderful uses of Vorspiel from Das Rheingold (won’t pretend to know the opera but it’s used amazingly in the opening sequence of Terrence Malick’s The New World).
All in all, it’s just a joy to see him make movies and to plunge into his world, which is our world too but just the bits that we weren’t looking for. You do begin to feel that if the universe wants an accurate self-assessment, it should go to Werner Herzog first.