Leave it to a Werner Herzog film to leave you with some big questions, even if they aren’t necessarily related to what’s on screen. For the majority of this reviewer’s first viewing of Herzog’s latest film, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, it was not so much the film’s salient theses on the internet’s reshaping of humanity’s traditional sense of self that stood out. Rather, it led to an internalized debate about the nature of expectation as it relates documentary film as a medium.
As it turns out, this particular case of tangential angst is about as Herzogian as it gets, which can make Lo and Behold both a rewarding and frustrating experience.
Herzog is always keen to allow his own interests and feelings to run wild, though his observations often arrive through the discovery of fringe figures and events whose very humanity binds them to the audience. This is evident in the life and death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell as chronicled in Grizzly Man (2005), the titular prisoner of war in Little Dieter Wants to Fly (2005), and in Lessons of Darkness (1992), which utilizes the otherworldly footage of burning oil fields in post-Desert Storm Kuwait in service to Herzog’s poetical-philosophical musings.
That said, a film about the internet itself remains something that is usually done with a clear focus in mind, often highlighting cultures and behaviors found in the Internet’s many known and unknown corners. Between hackers and hacktavists, players and pornographers, the internet has generally been interrogated through its symptoms that belie a far greater infection left unexplored, so to speak, in terms of how our sense of self is compromised in the process of becoming networked. Enter Werner Herzog: Following 2010’s well-received Cave of Forgotten Dreams in which he was granted access to the Chauvet caves in Southern France in order to capture the earliest pictorial expressions of humanity, we know to leave our expectations at the door and let him be our chin-stroking guide. Oh, if only it were that easy.
From Lo and Behold’s start, it’s clear that Herzog’s ambitions are, as usual, grandiose - he sets out to tell the history of The Internet. Here, he presents his film as almost an aetiology of the internet; a vehicle for him to diagnose the greater set of causes that made the internet what it is today.
The film opens on the campus of UCLA where students walk to and from class, clueless (the horror!) to the incredible history that is located in a seemingly unremarkable building where the first message on ARPANET, the precursor of the World Wide Web we all know and love, was recorded. Leonard Kleinrock, one of the internet’s founding figures, barely stands still as he tells the story of the first online message in which researchers were attempting to key in the “log” half of “log-in,” but the network crashed after the first two letters were sent. (This ineffectual effort sets the tone for the first part of the film’s whimsical title with Kleinrock making not unfounded analogies to Christopher Columbus first catching a glance of the New World.)
Told in ten parts, Herzog’s grand history of the internet appears linear at first blush in that he begins with the birth of the world wide web and moves forward in time to diagnose and explain the dysfunctional internet symptoms circa 2015. But he soon leaves the narrative safety of the origin story behind, intent on following his many tangential flights of fancy. In some ways, this seemingly hands-off approach echoes a typical online experience where a single online search inadvertently grows into a plurality of competing desires. In the film, Herzog chases a series of obliquely related topics towards complete abstraction, causing viewers considerable strain in keeping up with the restless filmmaker.
In a bit of kismet, this almost improvisatory approach imbues the film with a truly Herzogian litheness where he treats the readily identifiable subject at hand as more of a launching pad for his own musings, which is par for the course with his documentaries. But like any film looking to do its share of theorizing, this approach walks a fine line between genuine enlightenment and half-baked bullshitting. Included in his early history of the internet is a lysergic parallel vision of the internet as told by “internet pioneer” Ted Nelson, who posits a vibrant alternate mode of interconnectivity that clearly resonates with Herzog, though maybe not the viewer, who barely restrains himself from interjecting.
At the age of 74 Herzog has certainly earned himself a degree of self-indulgence, and that extends to the many pioneers of the internet that he interviews. Each speaks in starry-eyed reverie of the heady days of turning the theory of interconnection into a reality. Riding this wave of enthusiasm takes the viewer through a number of extraordinary examples in the field of contemporary robotics, including self-driving cars, and the growing ability of artificial intelligence to learn. In sync with his subject, the filmmaker appears headed straight for the realm of the post-human.
However, Herzog’s ultimate fixation is not with technology, but with the humans it affects. This is what takes his documentary into the internet’s “dark side” where we are confronted with the tragic story of the Catsouras family who experienced the macabre predilections of internet dwellers before “online bullying” entered the cultural lexicon. As Herzog’s cameras stay focused on a family standing somberly in their kitchen, the father tells about how an emergency worker’s illicit photo of his dead daughter in the wreckage of her car was used by the collective trolls of the internet to emotionally bludgeon them via email and phone, traumatizing the family far worse than they could have ever imagined.
Here is where one might earnestly start wondering why Herzog has chosen to focus the entirety of his “bad internet” story on this one example. This feeling creeps into the film with renewed vigor when Herzog profiles internet addicts at a Seattle-area online rehab called Restart, whose founder gives horror story after horror story of online addiction, sounding more like a Dr. Phil segment. Eventually, one can’t help but dwell on what Herzog might be willfully avoiding, which, at the very least, is a missed opportunity to ground his heady theses in more readily identifiable or relatable examples and thus evoking a greater deal of empathy from the viewer.
Instead, Herzog seems intent on aiming for the clouds and his reasons for doing so become less self-evident as he jumps across increasingly unconnected topics. Soon we find Herzog weighing the end of the world while interviewing Elon Musk about his plans to colonize Mars, offering himself up for a one-way trip. By the time he investigates the threat of solar flares to disrupt communication infrastructures or asks strangers if the internet can dream, one starts to feel that maybe Herzog has lost sight of his subject.
It’s In the ambivalence one can’t help but feel upon leaving the theater that she or he might not have seen the enlightening film that was advertised that the question of expectation and documentary film comes into focus a bit better. Why can an inoffensive film about a common topic incite such frustration?
Perhaps the answer lies in the simple fact that this is a film about the internet itself, and because of the internet’s ubiquitous presence in daily life, every viewer going into this film is carrying some degree of expectation that is considerably heavier than with most other documentary films’ subject matter - and this being a Herzog film, it’s also not without precedent that we might find ourselves walking into the theater anticipating a near-transcendental (if grueling) meditation on the human toll of our hyper-connected world.
Now, whether one needs LOL cats to achieve this lofty goal, Herzog’s continued skirting of instantly recognizable digital signifiers undercuts one’s desire to indulge Herzog’s lively sincerity in his passion for his subject matter. Admittedly narcissistic, we expect to see a piece of our own personal stories reflected on screen, even if it’s the most populist of shared experiences.
This distance that Herzog unnecessarily creates between the audience and the film’s subject, however, is what keeps it from reaching the heights of many of his past efforts, which extolled a sense of connectivity that was already blooming in minds like his before the internet truly bound us all together.
Lo and Behold is by no means a bad film, and it is far more often than not a good one. Perhaps the problem lies in the simple fact that Herzog, on paper and in the pudding, is the best and worst person to tackle such a subject. While he remains committed, at least during the film’s outset, to tackle the ‘big questions’ as they relate to our connected world, he seems to quickly realize that such a project would be foolish at best, instead relying on his unique strengths as a filmmaker and storyteller in order to present his subject as only he can.
For a filmmaker and thinker who has always relied on his cunning research abilities to highlight apparently unremarkable people or events, discovering whole new terrains fit for exploration in the process, he seems almost too perfect of a soul to interrogate the many why’s that remain unanswered about what it really means to live in a connected world.
Herzog isn’t afraid to look past the wonders offered by the technology of interconnection and at least weigh the many potentialities for chaos and catastrophe. And here is why we tend to consider Herzog as one of the most important filmmakers living today - regardless of how distant or incongruent the nature of his subject matter at hand might seem, he remains focused on probing the furthest contours of humanity to obtain some degree of heightened insight into human nature itself.