‘Theater of Thought’ Film Review: Werner Herzog Offers a Baffling Guided Tour of the Brain

·3-min read
Telluride Film Festival

When Werner Herzog makes a new documentary, you can always count on one of the most satisfyingly strange occurrences in nonfiction filmmaking: the dulcet Germanic tones of Mr. Herzog making odd connections and going deep into the mystic, even when he’s talking about science.

His new doc, “Theater of Thought,” doesn’t contain anything as wonderful as Herzog’s musings on prehistoric radioactive crocodiles in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” or his dismissal of dogs too stupid to know about geologic history in “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds.” But letting the 80-year-old Herzog loose to explore the human mind is predictably fertile territory, in which serious scientific inquiry must make room for 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 (through a computer-brain interface) that there is a heaven?”

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Those questions, for the record, are typically met either by laughter or by variations on “I have absolutely no idea,” but that’s fine with Herzog: His goal isn’t to get answers, it’s to make the exploration as wide-ranging, philosophical and off-the-wall as possible.

“Theater of Thought” is a movie about exploring the mind – and if the mind we’re exploring most of the time is Herzog’s, well, there are far worse tour guides through this territory.

He’s aided in this inquiry by brain researcher Rafael Yuste, though Herzog is the one who occupies center stage and does all the interviews. Visually, the film is dry, without the spectacle of his docs on caves and volcanoes. It consists largely of conversations with scientists, most of whom seem to be sitting at their desks in offices with nice views – though German-American neurophysiologist Christof Koch insists on doing his interview beside a river where he’s just rowed a boat to put himself into a “zen-like state.” (Herzog naturally discloses this info with barely concealed delight.)

It’s a scattershot, even haphazard film, flitting from one subject to another (which anybody who daydreams might say is how our brains work, too).  Here’s the NYU professor who established the location of fear in the brain; here’s an expert on storytelling who explains, “our narrative changes every time we tell it”; here are opto-genetic researchers who use light to control animal behavior; here are people pioneering computer-brain interfaces; here’s Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who famously walked between New York’s World Trade Center towers in 1974; and here’s a bit of the “Baby Shark” video, too!

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By the end, we’re into a discussion of the ethics of messing with the brain, another subject on which there are no real answers, just more questions. But that, of course, is just fine with Herzog.

The director’s most cogent comment, though, probably comes about half an hour into the film, when he interrupts a conversation about quantum computers by making this observation to his viewers: “I admit that I literally understand nothing of this, and I assume most of you don’t either.”

No, we don’t – we’re lost in a bewildering barrage of information, and in the mystical fog in which Herzog envelops us. But hell, “Theater of Thought” is something of a trip into Werner Herzog’s brain, so stumbling through that fog can be quite entertaining.