As a documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog often seems guided by his curiosities rather than by a specific structure or a concrete objective. For a movie like graying manhaving a clear objective and a direct narrative to tell felt like an oddity in his documentary work, whereas films like Meetings around the world and Cave of Forgotten Dreams were more driven by Herzog’s interest at the time. Sometimes this can make Herzog’s documentaries seem disjointed, but in the case of Theater of Thoughtthis curious nature becomes an advantage for Herzog’s exploration of the human mind and incredible leaps in brain research.
Theater of Thought jumps right into Herzog’s eccentricities on this, as he states that he is a man of cinema and poetry, not a methodical scientist. It might make Herzog seem like the wrong choice for a complex subject, but it’s his childlike wonderment that really makes Theater of Thought work. Beyond the general idea of exploring how the brain works, there is no definitive goal that Theater of Thought is heading towards, which means having a storyteller like Herzog for the ride is essential for this trip to work.
For example, after letting a mathematician talk for several minutes about complex formulas and concepts, our narrator Herzog humorously adds, “I literally don’t understand any of this.” It’s also really lovely when Herzog has some of the top experts in the field in front of his camera, and he asks crazy questions like “Would you like to communicate with a hummingbird?” These kinds of no-nonsense questions throw these interview subjects off guard, and yet Herzog’s seriousness about such ideas makes for delicious back and forth.
But what’s also wonderful about having a documentary filmmaker like Herzog is that he freely admits his ignorance around these complex concepts and embraces the poetic aspect of these ideas – which he can handle with no problem. To be fair, the public itself probably has no idea what these scientists are talking about either, so having Herzog as the public figure makes Theater of Thought not the exhausting experience it could have easily become.
Naturally, a frequent way for Herzog to make sense of these gargantuan concepts is to link him to the movies. In order to dissect how fear works in the brain, Herzog visits the home of Philip Smallwho walked a tightrope between the tops of the World Trade Center buildings, made famous by James Maraisit is Man on wire. Herzog is clearly a lover of brilliant stories and what big stories mean, so having the main figure at the center of one of the most iconic documentaries of the 21st century seems like a no-brainer for Herzog. Their conversation is as charming as one would expect, as Petit points out that there was no way he could be scared as he rode back and forth on New York’s Twin Towers there. all these decades. Later, Herzog also uses images from the 1930s Earth of Oleksandr Dovzhenko to fully explore his feelings.
It’s also clear that technology is both a fascinating and terrifying concept for Herzog, a seemingly interesting concept as a step in humanity’s evolution, but also something that could lead to our eventual downfall. Herzog spends quite a bit of time looking at animals that live in virtual realities, comparing them to people who prefer video game worlds to the world around them. When Herzog interviews one of Siri’s co-creators, one of his first questions is simply, “How stupid is Siri?” The advancement of technology is inevitable, and Herzog’s uncertainty about the path it’s pushing humanity makes him suspicious of the future we’re headed toward.
Theater of Thought could have easily become a simple documentary about the evolution of thought and the fascinating science behind our brains, but in the hands of Herzog this subject becomes much more entertaining because he approaches the subject with a wonder that lets this subject sink slowly.