First Click: Werner Herzog’s virtual reality

January 13th, 2016


The main question I have about the new wave of virtual reality headsets is "will it make shooting aliens more fun?" Unsurprisingly, Werner Herzog, firebrand film director and famously intense personality, has a more philosophical take. Speaking to the New Yorker after the premiere of his newest movie, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog considered the new technology.

"The Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz, in Napoleonic times, famously said, ‘sometimes war dreams of itself.’ Does the internet dream of itself? That’s a big question. Now let me ask the Clausewitz question about virtual reality. Does virtual reality dream of itself? Do we dream or express and articulate our dreams in virtual reality? It remains to be seen."

Even at $599, it’s unlikely that the Oculus Rift headset is self-aware, let alone capable of happy little dreams about its own existence. But in addition to waxing mystical on the medium, Herzog also makes a good point about the way technology might be outstripping its demand.

It’s unlikely that the Oculus Rift headset is self-aware

"The strange thing here is that normally, in the history of culture, we have new stories and narrations and then we start to develop a tool," he says. "Or we have visions of wondrous new architecture — like, let’s say, the museum in Bilbao, or the opera house in Sydney — and technology makes it possible to fulfill these dreams. So you have the content first, and then the technology follows suit." But with virtual reality, Herzog points out, it’s the opposite. "In this case, we do have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content."

Herzog himself could step up to the plate to do just that, but it might not be the best idea. A virtual reality version of Grizzly Man, putting you in the jaws of a 400-pound bear as it chews your leg off, could end up a touch too harrowing. Similarly bleak would be a VR version of Stroszek, tracking a drunk’s life as it falls apart, first in Germany, then finally in a fictional Wisconsin town. Fitzcarraldo, in which Klaus Kinski lugs a riverboat over an Amazonian mountain, might work better, but only if it came with an authentically heavy boat peripheral.

The director describes another VR film he’s heard about where the room changes shape as you look around, the walls coming closer, the space shrinking and becoming claustrophobic. "It’s a form of space that we haven’t experienced yet," he says. "It is a form of space that occurs in our nightmares." Some of Herzog’s films could be their own versions of these nightmares. In Woyzeck, for example, the eponymous soldier has apocalyptic visions while barracked in a boring 19th century town, hallucinating demonic visions in the sky after he’s force-fed a pea-only diet. A VR version of the movie could make the you the unreliable narrator, force-feeding the soldier hallucinations that appear false but are plainly visible to the viewer.

For now, though, the director says VR is "not convincing yet" as the next way to express the human condition. He describes a film that made a particular impact on him. "I’ve seen one fairly short piece — a Mongolian yurt with a family sitting around and cooking something," he tells The New Yorker. "And you are sitting with them, and all of a sudden someone next to you starts to speak and you turn to the right and there’s Granny, who all of a sudden starts to talk with everyone else, and you notice there is somebody else next to you."

Oculus Rift

Werner, my man, I think I understand the problem. Yurt Simulator 2016 sounds good and all, but you should play Eve: Valkyrie, which straps you into the cockpit of a starfighter and sends you spiralling out into the cosmos, or try Kitchen, Capcom’s infamous VR demo that pins you to a chair while a demon woman stalks around behind you and sinks a knife into your leg.

But perhaps movie directors aren’t the best people to be asking about the future of virtual reality. Even more so than most directors, Herzog’s vision is singular, carefully selecting shots that he feels you need to see, stripping out extraneous detail. He’d need to adapt his approach to work in the new medium — virtual reality’s promise is in putting you face-to-face with things you could never see, setting you loose in places you could never travel to, but rather than pinning your eyes to a central spot, giving you the option on what to look at and where to go. Directors have to maintain control of their viewers; VR promises to give them freedom.

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