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‘Theater of Thought’ Review: Werner Herzog Playfully Investigates the Mysteries of the Human Mind

Telluride: Herzog's documentary about the brain turns into a vital but scattershot meditation on his fears for a future without him in it.

Werner Herzog's Theater of Thought

“Theater of Thought”

Werner Herzog has spent much of his time on this Earth staring directly into one kind of abyss or another — the molten heart of a volcano, the melting ice sheets of the Antarctic, the empty hollow of a chicken’s soul — but on the brink of his 80th birthday, cinema’s most unflappable nihilist finally turns his attention to an abyss so impenetrable that it seems to be staring right back at him: The future. It’s the largest and most impenetrable void that Herzog has ever dared to explore, and the closer it gets, the harder it becomes for him to see himself in its reflection.

That opacity is at the core of Herzog’s bemused and discursive “Theater of Thought,” a characteristically playful documentary in which the filmmaker scrambles for whatever errant insight he can find into the world of tomorrow. His best hope: The human brain. Whatever the future holds, it will spring from the same folded bundle of tissue that got us to the present, and likewise be created in its image (cue the scene where Herzog interviews one of the people responsible for creating Siri and asks them point blank “How stupid is Siri?”).

Herzog has always been drawn to the ecstatic mysteries of our own minds — what would possess a man to live with grizzly bears or lead a death march into the Amazon jungle? — and “Theater of Thought” finds him morbidly compelled by modern technology’s determination to solve them. Despite its ostensible fixation on the frontiers of neuroscience and AI, this film is ultimately the work of an old poet who fears that he might be the last of his kind; it’s the rallying cry of an artist who fears leaving behind a future so obsessed with understanding our brains that it doesn’t leave any room for imagination.

So much as the free-flowing “Theatre of Thought” has any evident structure to speak of, the movie is scaffolded around a road trip that Herzog took with neurobiologist Rafael Yuste, the two men traveling the country in order to meet with a motley crew of eccentrics on the cutting edge of brain science… and also whoever else Herzog feels like talking to (other subjects include “Man on Wire” hero Philippe Petit, whose interview feels more like a bucket list item for Herzog than anything else). Herzog drops by IBM headquarters in upstate New York, visits a billionaire who’s determined to finance telepathy, and meets up with a researcher in the Pacific Northwest who only agrees to speak on camera after achieving a zen-like serenity by rowing on a river at the crack of dawn.

One person talks about simulation theory, another about “Starcraft II.” By the time “Theater of Thought” finally peters out, Herzog pontificates on everything from the history of funny walks to the Na’vi’s tails in “Avatar.” He asks someone, with his usual impish sincerity, if lab mice can suspend disbelief. His camera lingers on these people for a few awkward seconds after they’re done speaking, as if imploring us to see something behind their eyes — something that not even their precious inventions could hope to convey.

The bittersweet comedy, which is present but played at a much lower key than it was in comparatively gut-busting films like “Encounters at the End of the World,” is created from the contrast between an interviewer who thinks of the brain like an artist, and subjects who think of the brain like engineers. When one person starts walking deep into the weeds of his own science, Herzog — who presumably traveled a great distance in order to interview the guy — falls back on a familiar gag by dropping the sound and announcing “I don’t understand what he’s talking about.” Even funnier is his tendency of shouting “CONFESS!” at people when he suspects that they’re withholding their feelings.

The throughlines between the film’s various characters aren’t always so easy to see — the brain is a pretty big subject, it turns out — but Herzog constantly returns to his concerns about art, poetry, and the ineffable secrets of the human soul in a future where thought processes (and even thoughts, themselves) are as understandable as a hand in front of your face. What use is an interview when you can read someone’s thoughts? What need is there for a jury when you can electronically map someone’s guilt? What purpose is there for a camera when you can see into someone’s head?

Herzog illustrates that last point by visiting a scientist in the projection booth of San Francisco’s Roxie Theater; he’s enamored by the space between image and thought, stimuli and perception. It’s one of the most visually stimulating moments in a movie that would lose precious little of its charm as a podcast. There is so much we lose sight of in this world because of our compulsion to see it more clearly, and while “Theater of Thought” introduces us to a wide array of bonafide visionaries, it gradually begins to question the basic nature of foresight. 

Could the first people on this continent have possibly imagined the New Jersey Turnpike? Would it be a good thing if we lost our ability or willingness to fish a trout? Herzog is confident in his own answers to these extremely Herzogian questions, but “Theater of Thought” — while forgettable in broad strokes — lingers in the mind with the melancholy of a man who isn’t sure the rest of his species will come to the same conclusion, and knows that he won’t be around to find out.

Grade: B-

“Theater of Thought” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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