Raffi Asdourian/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Pepe courtesy Matt Furie/mattfurie.com | Remix by Jason Reed

Werner Herzog is making a film about the Internet, but his work has always been about memes

'I believe the common denominator of the Internet is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and memes.'


Aaron Sankin

Internet Culture

Published Jan 5, 2016   Updated May 27, 2021, 10:05 am CDT

There’s something about the icy, Teutonic timber of German film director Werner Herzog‘s voice that makes his every intonation seem like an indifferent god whispering into your ear the nihilistic secrets of a cold, uncaring universe gradually grinding itself into dust.

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While the award-winning filmmaker’s documentaries display a technical brilliance that renders even ostensibly dry subjects—like the ancient cave paintings of Cave of Forgotten Dreams—into engrossing visual feasts, it’s Herzog’s trademark narration that makes many of his nonfiction works iconic.

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When you’re lying on the floor, paralyzed by the existential angst of living in a world where the only certainty is some unknowable suffering lurking somewhere in the future’s shadows, it’s Herzog’s voice you hear in your head reminding you that the carton of milk in your refrigerator is about to go bad.

Earlier this week, the trailer dropped for Herzog’s upcoming film Lo & Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. The movie, which is scheduled to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is an examination of the Internet. The film examines living in an age where everything is linked through an online infrastructure and considers the apocalyptic implications of what happens when that infrastructure fails.

“All of us collectively have to become the guardians of this fragile new world,” Herzog intones in the trailer’s voiceover.

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The movie seems like the next logical step in the oeuvre of an auteur who has already explored not only the dangers of texting and driving but also the technical challenges involved in lifting a giant steamship over a mountain. But Herzog’s focus on the Internet reveals something interesting: how all of his films are really about the same almost-certainly-futile quest to sort a chaotic universe into buckets of meaning.

What follows are lines from three of Hergoz’s documentaries—Grizzly Man, the story of a hippie who was eaten by a bear; Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an exploration of a network of prehistoric paintings discovered in a French cave; and Encounters at the End of the World, which follows a group of scientists working in Antarctica—that have been altered ever so slightly to describe the Internet.

As you will see, there is almost no difference between sharing memes on the Internet and being torn apart by a bear.

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Grizzly Man

  • “I believe the common denominator of the Internet is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and memes.”
  • “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the memes that the Internet ever produced, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of memes. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the memes. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in lulz.”
  • “What remains are his memes. And while we watch the memes in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. And that, for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to his life and to his death.”
  • “I think you should not keep this meme, you should destroy it. I think that’s what you should do, because it will be the rare Pepe in your room all your life.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams

  • “In a forbidden recess of the Internet, there’s a footprint of an 8-year-old boy next to the footprint of a dank meme. Did a meme stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.”
  • “Memes have been introduced into this brooding Internet and warmed by the likes to cool the shares, man do they thrive. There are already hundreds of them. Not surprisingly, mutant memes swim and breed in these likes. A thought is born of this surreal environment. Not long ago, just a few thousand years back, there were rare Pepes here 9,000 feet thick. And now a new climate is steaming and spreading. Fairly soon, these memes might reach the futch.”
  • “Looking at the memes, what will they make of them? Nothing is real. Nothing is certain. It is hard to determine whether these memes are dividing into their own doppelgangers and do they really meet or is it just their own imagining mirror reflection? Are we today the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time when we see the memes of the futch?”

Encounters at the End of the World

  • “The National Science Foundation had invited me to the Internet even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about rare Pepes.”
  • “I noticed that the memes in their routine were not speaking at all. To me, they were like priests preparing for mass. Under the ice, the memes find themselves in a separate reality where space and time acquire a strange, new dimension. Those few who have experienced the world under the Internet often speak of it as going down into the cathedral.”
  • “It occurred to me that in the time that we spent with memes on the Internet possibly three or four languages have died. In our efforts to preserve endangered memes we seem to overlook something equally important. To me, it’s a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where meme-huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.”
  • “As if we had wanted to leave one remnant of our presence on this planet, they would find a frozen Pepe mysteriously hidden away beneath the mathematically precise true south pole. They stash it back away into its frozen shrine for another eternity.”
  • “The rules for the humans are do not disturb or hold up the meme. Stand still and let him go on his way. And here, he’s heading off into the interior of the vast futch. With 5,000 kilometers ahead of him, he’s heading towards certain death.”
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Photo via Raffi Asdourian/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Pepe courtesy Matt Furie | Remix by Jason Reed

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*First Published: Jan 5, 2016, 6:14 pm CST