In 10 micro chapters, Werner Herzog, the director of the classic odysseys Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aquirre, the Wrath of God (1972), tackles the internet, its rise, and the perils and promise of a connected world. The scope and the questions are nothing new — “Who is going to be liable if a computer makes a mistake?” Herzog asks about self-driving cars — but the filmmaker’s laid-back yet probing style and quest for getting at the human condition is nothing short of infectious, viral, if you will.
The segments, with pointed titles like “The Internet of Me,” “The Glory of the ‘Net,” and, of course, “The Future,” each delve into a different facet of the internet, be it historical or conjecture. Herzog buffers most of the blips with the Dickian question, “Does the internet dream of itself?” The segments that provoke the most are the segments that tackle the downside of being connected. One woman tags the Net as a “manifestation of the Anti-Christ.” The underscoring of that is a family who lost their daughter in a car accident, and the pain that the graphically snapped photos from the scene inflicted on them during their grieving as they were unleashed out onto the web, ever proliferating, unretrievable and unstoppable.
That tale of tragedy becomes the sad underbelly to hypertext inventor Ted Nelson’s optimistic allusion to water as a metaphor for flow of connectivity. Other notable talking heads in the documentary include convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick, and Pay Pal and Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk.
As a filmmaker, Herzog’s always been a philosophical sort, especially in his documentary works, where his inquisitive nature and naturalist style allow the subject to articulate the state of affairs in their own way. He’s not passive, mind you. With a thick yet inviting German accent, Herzog lobs barbed questions and then simply stands back. It’s what made his Antarctic sojourn Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and plumbing of Timothy Treadwell’s video diaries in Grizzly Man (2005) so compelling. He’s nowhere near Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall cinema vérité, but does share the same pursuit of unadulterated truth and the innate ability to provoke, something that embosses a documentary’s value where others, like Michael Moore — for better or worse — might apply a heavily skewed hammering.
The leading snippet of the film’s title, Lo and Behold, comes smartly from the first internet transmission between University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford, where the word “Logon” was to be formed in two parts (“Log” and “On”) by the two computers collaborating on the join. A glitch, however, thwarted the victory lap as the initiating computer choked on the “O” in “Log” thus “Lo.”
Of the innovative topics explored there are cures for disease, autonomous cars, and artificial intelligence. Herzog borders on hinting at Skynet and in a visit to a lab where BB-8 styled robots scurry about playing soccer quite efficiently, one of the scientists insists that they will someday soon be able to trump top FIFA teams.
The more engrossing yarns are the more outlandish and personal like the South Korean marathon gamers who wear diapers so they don’t have to get up (and the physical perils of remaining sedentary for too long) or the unhealthy addictiveness of a life lived online and the group of technophobic folk who aggregate around an enormous telescope in West Virginia because its electromagnet requirements have turned the Appalachian hillside into a 10-mile cellular free zone. You can only imagine the joy that Ted Kaczynski might have if he’d learned of such a tech-free Eden.
In the end, the journey, which covers the map and throws in the kitchen sink, doesn’t provide any more answers than what’s out there today, and even if it did, it’s not within Herzog’s wheelhouse to do so. The constant redirect to the viewer is his hook, an invitation to contemplate alongside, and as rambling as the film and Herzog’s mind may seem at times, there’s a clear focus, form, and intent. Lo and Behold ultimately becomes a quest for the documentable alterations to humanity and the human condition that have evolved in a nascent, virtually connected universe. And no matter how elusive that may be, Herzog remains doggedly at it to the very end, as he’s always been. If you don’t believe that, drop Burden of Dreams into your viewing queue.