Werner Herzog and “Lo and Behold”

Posted on June 26, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Werner Herzog is not only one of the most brilliant directors in the history of world cinema; he is also unique in the span of his films, equally impressive in narrative features and documentaries. After a decade of pleading from the AFI Docs festival for the chance to recognize his work at their Charles Guggenheim Symposium, the busy director finally agreed to attend and permit a tribute to his work that included an interview on stage and a screening of his new film about the internet, “Lo And Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.”

Herzog was interviewed by another outstanding director, Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo,” “99 Homes”). Both were championed by Roger Ebert, who brought them together for a collaboration — the wonderful short film “Future States,” with Herzog providing the voice for the existentially troubled central character, a plastic bag.

Herzog’s documentary may cover some of the most advanced technology in the world, but he does not have a cell phone, he says, “for cultural reasons. Our examination of the world should not only be through applications.” When Bahrani complimented his “location-based” images, Herzog said, “I’m good with locations. I can direct landscapes.” Whether he is shooting burning oil fields in Kuwait (“Lessons of Darkness”), the face of a deaf/blind woman on her first airplane flight (“Land of Silence and Darkness”), or the soft-drink-machine size computer that sent the very first two-letter message over the internet (“Lo and Behold”), his camera movements and images are vital and engaging. He spoke of the importance of being on top of the mechanics of filming (“I am a very pragmatic filmmaker”) and of the poetry, a sort of choreography of the camera, as he conveys “the dance between the actors and the location.”

He distinguished his documentary films from the prevalent approach to non-fiction filmmaking, which he considers more like journalism, “belonging more to television than in a theater.” He is frank about his departure from the conventions of cinema verite; he has no hesitation in asking a subject to move or answer again, to “go beyond the mere facts” in search of “narrative power.” “Illumination is more important than facts….I’m looking for deeper poetry.” But that does not necessarily mean pretty pictures. He will avoid shooting a sunset, calling it “romanticized beauty.”

He says there are things you cannot learn in film school, like “know(ing) the heart of men.” What filmmakers should learn in film school are the tools it takes to get the film made: “lock picking and forging shooting permits.”

Herzog makes films when “there is a story so big I cannot resist.” And he does not stop. “I plow on.”

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