When Werner Herzog directs a new documentary, you can always count on one of the weirdest and most satisfying occurrences in non-fiction cinema: Mr. Herzog’s suave Germanic tones making eerie connections and going deep into the mystical. , even when talking about science.
His new documentary, “Theater of Thought,” contains nothing so wondrous as Herzog’s musings on prehistoric radioactive crocodiles in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” or his dismissal of dogs too stupid to know geological history in ” Fireball: Visitors From Darker”. worlds. But letting 80-year-old Herzog explore the human mind is, predictably, fertile ground, in which serious scientific inquiry must give way to questions like these, posed to various scientists and researchers by our director and interlocutor:
“Do fish have souls?
“How stupid is Siri?”
“Does a mouse suspend disbelief?”
“Could a dying man send a message (via a computer-brain interface) that there is a paradise?”
These questions, for the record, are usually answered with either laughs or variations on “I have absolutely no idea,” but that’s fine with Herzog: his goal isn’t to get answers, it’s is to make the exploration as expansive, philosophical and quirky as possible.
“Theater of Thought” is a film about exploring the mind – and if the mind we explore most of the time is Herzog’s, well, there are far worse tour guides through this territory.
He is aided in this investigation by brain researcher Rafael Yuste, although Herzog is the one who takes center stage and does all the interviews. Visually, the film is dry, without the spectacle of its docs about caves and volcanoes. It’s largely about conversations with scientists, most of whom seem to be sitting at their desks in offices with lovely views – although German-American neurophysiologist Christof Koch insists on doing his interview by a river where he just rowed a boat to get into a “zen state.” (Herzog naturally divulges this information with barely concealed pleasure.)
It’s a scattershot, even haphazard movie, jumping from one subject to another (which anyone daydreaming could tell is how our brains work, too). Meet the NYU professor who established the location of fear in the brain; here is a storytelling expert who explains: “our story changes every time we tell it”; here are optogenetic researchers using light to control animal behavior; here are people pioneering computer-brain interfaces; here is Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 1974; and here is also a bit of the “Baby Shark” video!
In the end, we’re in for a discussion about the ethics of messing with the brain, another subject for which there are no real answers, just more questions. But that, of course, suits Herzog just fine.
The director’s most relevant comment, however, probably comes half an hour into the film, when he interrupts a conversation about quantum computers with this observation to his viewers: “I confess that I literally don’t understand anything to that, and I guess most of you don’t either.
No, we don’t – we’re lost in a bewildering deluge of information and the mystical fog in which Herzog envelops us. But damn it, “Theater of Thought” is kind of a trip through Werner Herzog’s brain, so stumbling through that fog can be pretty fun.