Werner Herzog has devoted the last thirty years of his filmmaking career primarily to documentaries, which has provoked mixed responses, not only from critics like myself who love his fiction films from the 1970s, but from critics and audiences generally, who sometimes don’t know how to approach his non-fiction projects. His wry, cryptic, darkly paradoxical point of view has become somewhat familiar now as expressed in his German-accented English voice-overs. He can be very funny, almost always intentionally so, and at this point he seems at times to be approaching self-parody. But there’s a reason for his attachment to the documentary form—he is always exploring the big questions: life and death, the nature of reality, what it means to be human, why we think and act the way we do. And often he chooses to explore the edges of things, the extremes of life, in order to understand them. The film essay comes naturally to him, and you need to be willing to let him take you where he will. In exchange, he doesn’t try to force a point of view on you, but lets whatever the subject may be play freely, one way or another, while interjecting occasional comments.
His latest film takes on a rather broad subject. It’s called Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, and the subject is ostensibly the internet, but actually the entire phenomena of computers and the social and virtual realities they’ve established. Rather than a linear thesis, however (you don’t really expect a Herzog movie to be linear), he covers various aspects of his subject in discrete chapters.
Beginning with the origins of the internet, he interviews people involved in that momentous beginning, at Stanford University and elsewhere, and here the mood is appropriately awestruck, celebrating the huge expansion of our knowledge and capacity to access information. At other times, he explores the darker side—in segments concerning the loss of privacy and the ubiquity of harassment on the internet. In one alarming sequence, scientists discuss the threat of major solar flares—we last saw one of a huge magnitude in the 19th century, before there were computers—and the likelihood of such flares actually shutting down the gird worldwide, which would cause unspeakable disaster.
The film also examines what you might call the opposite end of the subject, through interviews with people who have become gravely ill due to all the radio waves in the environment, and have sought refuge in isolated rural settings where there are no computers or cell towers. We visit a treatment center for people who are addicted to the internet, and hear some harrowing personal stories of online gamers who let their lives slip away as they compulsively played games for days on end. In the final third of the film, Herzog examines the ideas concerning artificial intelligence and robotics. As always, our attention is turned to the bigger question—what does it mean to be conscious? Can a machine be self-aware? And then he asks some of the scientists he’s interviewing an unusual, yet typically Herzogian question, “Does the internet dream of itself?”
I came away from the film not with any answers, but with a heightened sense of questioning and imagining alternatives to my everyday assumptions about our digital age. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is as challenging and unpredictable as a film can be. And I like it that way.