Werner Herzog & Joshua Oppenheimer Examine the State of Humanity & Documentary Film

Werner Herzog & Joshua Oppenheimer at Sundance 2016
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival awards us this hour of conversation with two giants of documentary film.

The enigmatic Werner Herzog debuted his 28th documentary feature last week at Sundance 2016 to the subject of much speculation and conversation. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is an exploration of technology, interconnectivity, and human progress done in a way only Herzog could: from a place of eccentric empathy, ineffable curiosity, and technological naivety. Acclaimed filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, the creator of the massively influential The Act of Killing and its 2015 followup The Look of Silence, sits down to talk with Herzog about the current state of humanity, the mystery of images, and the crucial difference between journalism and filmmaking.

Watch the full hour conversation here (Starts around 33 mins in):

Joshua Oppenheimer On The Importance of a Supportive Team

While you’re making a film it’s important to have a safe team, most people’s films are really bad before they are wonderful. You need people to ask those questions, a supportive team, you should never work with people who are accusing you in the process, but people who have your back and are trying to deliver your vision.

Werner Herzog on Journalism vs Film

You see too many documentaries where you have all this investigative reporting and finding out that 'he’s a real bad guy.' It’s ad nauseam, it’s just journalism. Documentary film must divorce itself from journalism. Most documentaries are an extension of journalism. It’s legitimate, yes — do it and declare it journalism — but there’s something else out there.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance 2016 Blackmagic Design

No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.     

Your Comment


After a long and eloquent explanation by the documentary filmakers on how popular journalism breaks everything down into a simplistic sense of good people versus bad people and that the important thing in documentary film making is to explore and empathise with the dualistic complexity of human behaviour - the acceptance of both good and bad not only in others but also within ourselves - the interviewer immediately asks, with no hint of irony, "do either of you have any thoughts about wether human nature is at its core either good or bad?"

After a beat the audience then laughs but not because of the blind naïvety of the question but because they expect Werner to obviously see human nature as all bad. It's the same running gag, seen earlier in the interview, when Werner describes the blind pursuit of happiness as stupid, the audience laughs, wrongly assuming that he must of course be joking.

I'm fully aware that Werner has a public persona of being an eccentric but I also can't help feeling that this defensive "laughing off" of his serious and astute comments is a subconcious way for the audience to attempt to externalise their own hidden dark and more somber feelings. The underlying logic seems to be that if Werner is painted as the strange, morose European eccentric; as someone who rather than having a balanced view of life sees human nature as all bad, then perhaps we can protect our fantasy that human nature is all good.

It's surprising and a little disheartening that this audience and this interviewer in particular really doesn't seem to be able to understand or be willing to hear in any real depth what the filmakers are actually trying to say, but also interesting because it illustrates exactly their points about the popular wrong-headed concept of journalism, documentary and truth being about a polarisation of the world into good and bad.

Their must have been a Herzog head sized hole in the wall of Werners hotel room the next morning.

January 31, 2016 at 3:33AM, Edited January 31, 3:53AM

Paul fern
Film maker

Great point and well said. I found those moments of awkward laughter quite telling as well and this philosophical discourse is one I engage in a lot with myself as a filmmaker and a journalist.

February 3, 2016 at 9:14PM

Micah Van Hove