Early in “Theatre of Thought,” Rafael Yuste, described as a co-conspirator on the road trip that serves as the basis for Werner Herzog’s latest adventure, talks about how there’s a “valley of death,” a chasm between the experimentation and research that can be done to learn of human behavior before it can actually be performed on humans, generally on animals. Yuste marvels at what he’s learned from the hydra, a seemingly trivial creature that wasn’t recognized as anything more than a plant for some time until it was discovered to have a nervous system and with just one foot, moves incrementally by putting its foot in its mouth to do a somersault. This may not sound like the “Rosetta Stone for the brain” that Yuste claims it to be initially, but it was with the use of calcium imaging that he helped develop that began to measure how its neural system worked specifically, making it not so large a leap to imagine that it won’t be long before similar tricks of the mind can be identified in humans.
While everyone interviewed in “Theatere of Thought” believes it’ll still be a few decades to connect the dots, the ever-curious Herzog is willing to start making those connections now in a film that’s alternately playful and profound, attempting to close the gap between human consciousness and other species as well as advances in technology that can influence the way we think on an unconscious level. In some ways, it is a companion piece to his 2016 film “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” which considered the Internet as a reflection of humanity as well as possibly its antithesis, imploring tech experts to think about their work in personal and moral terms they usually aren’t asked about.
Part of the joy of “Theatre of Thought” is watching scientists being slightly thrown off by Herzog’s line of questioning, with the likes of Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist Richard Axel appearing slightly perplexed at being asked whether he and his wife, the neurobiologist Cori Bartmann, ever argue about science at home (“We try not to talk about science at the dinner table,” he stammers) – but when subjects appear to be making connections they haven’t before, the loose ends the filmmaker is trying to sew up regarding far larger issues seem a bit more within grasp when dislodged from any jargon. (Amusingly, just as Marvel builds applause breaks into their blockbusters after a reveal, Herzog would seem to let certain scenes linger for an idea to fully settle in.)
Although the film is personalized by Herzog’s inimitable narration, his preoccupations bubble up elsewhere as he may start out asking someone about the ability to simulate sensations – the possibility of tasting a schnitzel without having a bite to eat – and end up asking if someone dead could relay back whether they’ve seen the afterlife if hooked up to a machine, or in a particularly intriguing strand, whether predictive technology can tell him the kind of movie he would make before he actually conceives it. If the latter were true, it would certainly rob Herzog of the sense of exploring the unknown that drives his work, yet he allows himself an interest in the idea of the brain coming up with its own narrative that informs how it behaves over time while taking a path that couldn’t possibly be entirely predetermined as he makes visits to the Catskills to talk to tightrope walker Philippe Petit about and the offices of IBM to discuss quantum mechanics with its head of research Dario Gil. It may remain a mystery by the film’s end what all has to come together to form an idea, but “Theatre of Thought” brings ideas together that are bound to get neurons firing.
“Theatre of Thought” will next screen at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank on September 12th at 6:30 pm, September 13th at 5:30 pm and September 16th at 8 pm. It will also be available virtually throughout Canada from September 16th through the end of the festival.