Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016) by Werner Herzog
Review by Andrew Swafford
Lo And Behold by Werner Herzog is an incredibly fascinating podcast. Split into 10 chapters that each provide information and ask questions about different aspects of internet technology and culture, the film sees Herzog speaking to internet historians and recovering internet addicts, aerospace engineers and hackers, futurists and cynics. All provide unique perspectives that inspire curiosity and skepticism, posing questions and exploring ideas that don’t necessarily add up to any larger conclusions, and Herzog swiftly darts from one topic of expertise to the next, never settling down to focus on one specific question or idea long enough for the viewer to be especially bored or especially enlightened.
It is in this way that Herzog’s craft here feels more like a podcast than a film, or even a documentary. I’m neither an expert on Herzog nor the documentary form, but I feel that the best documentaries (maybe the best movies in general?) give the viewer a intensely focused deep-dive into a topic of great specificity, allowing them to walk away with a newfound understanding of something they would otherwise be unconcerned with. Podcasts, on the other hand, are much more informal and loosely structured, exploring ideas with the intimacy of a casual conversation between friends--and with that conversation’s lack of pressure to achieve anything concrete.
The conversations Herzog has with his subjects are like NPR-TV--especially mainstays like Radiolab and This American Life--as they by turns reveal personal vulnerabilities and wax poetic about their theories of the human condition. Those conversations themselves are, as stated, fascinating. Standouts include master hacker and ex-con Kevin Mitnick, who explains, step-by-step, how to steal confidential information by exploiting the human element of internet security systems; as well as tech entrepreneur and future Nietzschean overlord Elon Musk, who talks to Herzog about his efforts to start a human colony on Mars once the cost is low enough to sell two way tickets--Herzog offers to buy a one way ticket, with sarcasm that goes hilariously unnoticed by Musk. This is often a surprisingly funny movie, especially when Herzog’s interviewees have no idea how to respond to his schtick (as if anyone does?).
The film includes harrowing conversations, however--and they are the ones that put the human element front and center. One segment concerns deep-wilderness outposts of adults and teens recovering from crippling internet addiction, as well as a cult-like commune of people terrified of internet-based radiation, which feels pulled straight out of both Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel White Noise and Todd Haynes's brilliant film Safe. It's a creepy sequence.
There is one conversation in particular that towers above the rest, though: a family whose youngest daughter was brutally killed in a freak accident tells of the grief they can never move past, thanks to internet harassers (let’s stop calling them trolls, please) who continue to send them pictures of their daughter’s corpse with captions that Herzog refuses to read out loud for his audience (he refuses to show the image as well, which was wise). It’s a story that never ceases to be relevant lately, from the #GamerGate hatemongering of feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian, to the misogynistic/racist outcry over Ghostbusters remake and the digital crucifixion of its star, comedian Leslie Jones--and now to the development of the so-called “Alt-Right,” who have appropriated meme-icon Pepe the Frog to call for Neo-Nazi genocidal violence in support of Donald Trump. I am sure that next week there will be new examples of how this moment in Lo and Behold taps into the core of toxic internet culture--and it’s not hard to understand why the mother of this family feels justified in referring to the internet, in all seriousness, as literally being the antichrist, possessing the minds of her entire society. Herzog frames and holds the shot of the family with quiet sobriety and extended silence, providing the film with one of its only moments of visual potency and presenting the audience with a great sense of ambiguity as to what his intentions are.
On the other hand, many interviews throughout Lo and Behold strictly concern the line between the possible and impossible as far as mechanical technology is concerned. For example: Herzog interviews a robotics engineer who has programmed small Roomba-esque robots to play soccer independently of any human control; he also interviews a biomedical engineer who has utilized open-source internet gaming to help solve complex problems of chemical bonding that will assist in finding cures for cancer and HIV.
However, it is especially interesting to see these gear-head conversations turn into abstract theorizing about the relationship between humans and technology. Perhaps the most existentially terrifying is the question of whether or not it will eventually be possible to live in a world where human-to-human interaction is completely unnecessary--what happens when machines can provide more compelling conversation, more reliable companionship, and more pleasurable sex than their human analogs? The idea seems awful now, but if it were a reality, would anyone miss their fellow human beings?
And in that true Herzog fashion (that reminds you why his name being attached to this project felt so spot-on to begin with), he includes a segment on how our logistical dependence on the internet could lead to any number of apocalyptic scenarios that could spell doom for the human race, of course.
These are two of many questions that I feel Herzog could have explored for the film’s entire runtime--but the concept of making a 90-minute documentary that covers everything internet leaves too many avenues to explore for the filmmaker to dwell on any particular question for long.
If this review feels like a disconnected laundry list of anecdotes and unanswered questions, perhaps it should. The film is the same way. The anecdotes and questions themselves are engrossing and infinitely interesting, but they don’t add up to anything coherent. Grading Lo and Behold on the scale movie critics have developed for cinema feels wrong, because the movie has completely different intentions.
Like a podcast, Lo and Behold doesn’t care whether or not it presents a clear answer to its own questions or wholly resolves its conversation before moving on to the next episode--it concerns itself with developing a feeling of intimacy and inspiring curiosity and awe for a few minutes at a time. It also doesn’t offer much in the department of visual cinemastuffs, and though I saw it in a the nosebleeds of a packed Public Cinema theater behind an annoyingly vertical hairdo, there were plenty of moments that I didn’t care about having my line of sight obstructed--because there wasn’t much to see outside of talking heads filmed by tripod.
Often, I found myself mentally comparing this to another documentary presented by Public Cinema: Heart of a Dog by Laurie Anderson (which I reviewed in-depth here). Anderson’s film took a small subject--the death of her pet--and connected it to larger concerns about loss, security, and national identity, utilizing a nonconventional and abstract structure to present a singular vision and feeling that operates at the gut-level of a tone poem. Herzog’s film, on the other hand, takes an unfathomably, impossibly large subject and attempts to dice it up into easily digestible tidbits, with none of those tidbits relying on the others to convey a larger experience. In this way, it’s not a great film, and I don’t feel compelled to revisit it--but as a podcast, I might listen again.