Filmmaker Werner Herzog, who doesn't use a cellphone, explores our society's relationship

By Hayley Tsukayama

Werner Herzog, director of the film "Lo And Behold." Photo / Magnolia Pictures
Werner Herzog, director of the film "Lo And Behold." Photo / Magnolia Pictures

Filmmaker Werner Herzog didn't make his first phone call until he was 17, and still doesn't ever use a cellphone. That may make him seem like an odd guide to take a hyper-connected society through an examination of how the Internet has affected society.

But, in truth, it makes him an almost ideal observer - one of the few who can step back with some impartiality -- to look at the effect this technology has had on the world.

Released Friday, Herzog's new film, "Lo and Behold," looks at development of the Internet - something Herzog calls as "momentous as the introduction of electricity into our civilization."

He spoke with The Washington Post ahead of the film's debut; Magnolia Pictures provided me with a copy of the film ahead of its release.

Here are a few snippets from our discussion of the film, which strings together vignettes examining the good and bad of the Internet.

On his own tech use:

Werner Herzog: I have to say, right away, that I hardly ever use the Internet.

Hayley Tsukayama: Really?

WH: I do have a laptop and I do emails. Sometimes I do Skyping with family. But I don't use a cellphone.

HT: Not at all?

WH: No.

HT: Why don't you use a cellphone?

WH: For cultural reasons. I'm not nostalgic, but I like to maintain contact, like, with you, directly sitting across a table.

I'm not delegating my examination of the world to, let's say, applications. I like not being available all of the time. And, at the same time, I like knowing that no hacker or no hostile government could track me down.

Now I'm sitting in this hotel in this room for how long. And they would know with whom I'm speaking and how many minutes. Nobody knows where I'm sitting, with the exception of you.

HT: That's somewhat dark. One thing I liked about the film was that it shifted often between looking at the dark side and the benefits of the Internet. It doesn't draw its own conclusion - why did you do it that way?

WH: It would be a silly approach to say the Internet is bad or the Internet is good. It would be too shallow. It is too complex. And besides, it's a very American obsession to see movies that way - it makes sense in westerns, which have to do with a definition of basic justice, of good and bad.

On subjects he would have liked to spend more time with:

WH: One [subject] I have some unfinished business with would be Bitcoins.

It was in the back of my mind, but at that time there were first signs that the person who "invented" Bitcoin - I say that in quotes - was tracked down, and then he denied it. So you couldn't cast that easily.

But I would be fascinated by someone committing a bank robbery of this money that only exists like a phantom. I'd like to see what kind of legislation there's going to be for robbing the "Bitcoin bank." I could send a robot to do the bank robbery. An intelligent robot with an intelligent program.

On his disagreement with Elon Musk over the colonization of Mars:

WH: I think it's not a good idea. We'd better look out for the habitability of our own planet. And, by the way, it's 1,000 times easier to colonize the floor of the oceans than to colonize Mars. Than to build a sort of survival raft on Mars, and have no place to land, no connection.

All this pretends to be "yes, we can reach Mars and we can place a few people there." And I would be interested to go there. If I had a camera I would be absolutely on board. But in terms of longer-term survival, how do we do that? All these half-baked ideas of colonizing Mars as a safety precaution are not very deep thinking.

I must say I respect Elon Musk. He's not just a dreamer, he's a man of practical things. But I do not agree with the ideology behind it. So I differ with him.

Still, I would like to be on a mission to Mars, even if it were a one-way ticket. But I have to have a camera. To explore Mars with a camera? How beautiful that would be.

What Herzog hopes viewers will get out of the film:

WH: I think it gives some sort of an overview and a deeper insight into what we are right now. It goes beyond the Internet, of course. That's why I'm so fascinated by people [featured in the film from] West Virginia. It's a radio wave-free zone with no telephones, no microwave ovens, no garage clickers because of those functions with radio waves.

I liked getting a look at these people who meet and play the fiddle around the fire, and have the dogs and the babes along. There's a certain beauty in that. Though I'm the last one to ever say "let's go back to the good old days" - I'm not one of those.

But it's good and worthwhile to ask whether we are losing something as simple as people just trying to play music and roast some pork belly over the fire.

HT: That was your closing scene in the movie.

WH: Yes. Though it's not that I want to promote this life. You can't do this with 2,000 fireplaces in Central Park in New York. It would be silly to even think about it.

HT: But were you bringing up that this is a connection that we may miss if we're immersed in technology?

WH: It just points at a connection that is deep and pure. Any kind of connection that doesn't need the Internet looks quite fine for me.

- Washington Post

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