Werner Herzog’s new documentary hits many of Ars’ sweet spots.
You know about filmmaker Werner Herzog, right? He’s famous not just for making movies but for being a lunatic. Starting in the ‘60s, our mad Bavarian genius crazied his way into our hearts by stealing equipment, forging permits, getting shot during an interview, regularly endangering his cast and crew, and dragging a 19th-century riverboat over a mountain. Even if you’ve never seen any of Herzog’s films, chances are you’ve heard someone parody him by calmly and precisely intoning how the universe is chaos, penguins go insane, and forests are full of misery. And Herzog’s not above making fun of his own image, as his appearances on The Simpsons, American Dad, Rick and Morty (NSFW), and The Boondocks (NSFW) can attest.
Herzog tends to make documentaries about weirdos that he views with equal parts admiration and bafflement. The title character of Grizzly Man thought he could live with bears, while My Best Fiend is about actor Klaus Kinski, who starred in five of Herzog’s most critically-acclaimed films, even though Herzog thought he was a “pestilence” who should have been murdered. Through interviews and archival footage, Lo and Behold sticks to this template, and it confronts the weirdest weirdo of them all: the Internet. Herzog never anthropomorphizes the Internet, but sees it instead as capable of one day becoming... well, something. I can’t seem to finish that sentence without trivializing the thing that is the Internet’s potential.
Lo and Behold is divided into 10 chapters with names like “The Early Days,” “The Glory of the Net,” and “The Future.” Despite some Wagner on the soundtrack and a snide remark about an ugly hallway, the movie begins as more-or-less straight reportage on how the Internet got started. Dr. Leonard Kleinrock, a co-creator of ARPANET, bangs away on an early machine like a maniac, while Bob Kahn talks about inventing some of the Internet’s core protocols.
Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the hackers, roboticists, security analysts, cosmologists, brain researchers, and astronomers, Lo and Behold turns darkly comic. Herzog loves to leave his camera on his subjects long enough for obsession to glimmer in their eyes, and an engineer doesn’t take much prodding to confess that he loves his soccer-playing robot. The dark side of the Internet—people struggling with video game addiction and online humiliation—shouldn’t come as a surprise. But what makes Lo and Behold more unsettling is that we have no real idea what an Internet-driven future may look like.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Herzog is more subdued than usual during Lo and Behold. The bizarre running commentary that he typically uses to accompany his interviews with misfits and eccentrics is relatively spartan, as if Herzog can’t wrap his head around the future the Internet will create. Herzog normally gets to see a subject’s life in totality (the subjects of Grizzly Man, My Best Fiend, and Into the Abyss died either before or during filming). But a future fundamentally built around electronic interconnection won’t just outlive him. It’s immortal.
“No one ever gets the future right,” cosmologist Lawrence Krauss tells Herzog. We never got our flying cars and Moonbases—we got the World Wide Web instead. The future is daunting because it’s something we haven’t thought of yet. It’s not going to be a utopian interplanetary society of jetpacks, but it’s not going to be The Hunger Games either. Even someone who says “we’re all going to hell in a handbasket!” is trying to put the future into a tidy little box. So it says a lot that Herzog, a filmmaker who once threatened his leading man with a rifle and ate his own shoe on a bet, can’t make up his mind where we’re headed.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is now in theatres, on-demand, on Amazon Video, and on iTunes. Interviewees include hacker Kevin Mitnick, roboticist Sebastian Thrun, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, computer scientist Adrien Treuille, astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, and Ars’ collective man-crush, Elon Musk. Watch the trailer here.
Peter has a B.A. in English. He is a line editor at Ars Technica, but every now-and-then he gets out of his cage.