Werner Herzog and madness go together like peanut butter and jelly. His strongest achievements—Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcaraldo and Lessons of Darkness—survey panoramas of visual chaos with almost immeasurable curiosity. Each of these films supports Herzog’s brutal philosophy toward life: only nature’s unflinching and unforgiving power can quell mankind’s arrogance run amok.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is more quaint and pedestrian by comparison, ironic considering its vast subject matter—the Internet. Herzog’s latest documentary curiously uncovers different pockets of experience and history that help clarify how our web-based culture has become so prevalent. Benefits of our societal evolution can be found in rousing segments about molecular research and robotics, while a very real cost dominates other chapters founded on addiction and anonymous bullying.
The gravity of Herzog’s iconic voiceover can immediately be felt in early scenes featuring interviews with pioneers like Leonard Kleinrock. The UCLA-based computer scientist gives the director a tour of an enshrined room where initial digital contact was made between two computers in 1969. Herzog then pinballs from one talking head to the next, highlighting a mosaic of personalities and perspectives that paint a picture of the Internet’s origins. He sympathizes most with the group’s most eclectic member, Ted Nelson, who compares the web’s interconnectivity to the flow of water.
Idiosyncratic personas like Nelson’s give Lo and Behold the vitality it needs to transcend a seemingly familiar structure. Herzog feeds off strange tangential statements that pique his interest regarding the darker impulses found on the web. This is on full display when he interviews the solemn family of a suicide victim whose privacy has been destroyed by the hurtful actions of a first responder.
Another fascinating segment involves an Appalachian town that purposefully exists out of time without cell towers or the Internet to respect work being done by a gigantic research telescope. As a result, people physically affected by radio waves have flocked there to live a simpler life, each a representative of a growing anti-technology contingent unable to function in regular society.
Without the luxury of vast landscapes or singular subjects willing to test the boundaries of sanity, Herzog often decides to get metaphysical instead. He asks multiple academics and researchers, “Does the Internet dream of itself?” Their answers are complex and incomplete, fitting for a film that doesn’t try to tell the whole story. Emotion comes into play as well. A college student who’s helped design soccer playing bots looks on fondly as they shoot goals. Herzog sees an opportunity: “Do you love it?” The young man almost bashfully replies, “Yes.”
If Lo and Behold lacks the otherworldly strangeness of Herzog’s best documentaries (see Cave of Forgotten Dreams and The White Diamond), it remains slyly unsettling for other reasons. Take for instance the conversations with cosmologist Laurence Krauss, who speaks frankly on a possible pandemic event where strong solar flares knock out all of our technology. Herzog gleefully considers a future dystopia caused by our over-reliance on the web.
But it’s another one of Krauss’ comments late in the film that resonates when considering our current ethical dilemmas: “The Internet, like most results in science, is out of control. Becoming your own filter will be the challenge of the future. The Internet will propagate out of control, so people will have to be their own controls.”
While Herzog never fully creates a visual parallel to complement this conundrum, he takes a step back and lets the words of his subjects sting. Cumulatively, the interviews and b-roll footage in Lo and Behold chart the digital manifestation of our massive creative abilities, strong desires, intrinsic needs and deepening hubris. “The Internet was designed for a community that trusted each other,” says one of the early pioneers. Look how far we’ve come.