Film review | Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

When the legendary German director Werner Herzog releases a movie, you had best sit up and pay attention • 4/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
1 February 2017, 8:00am
Always one to seek the surreal in the everyday, legendary German director Werner Herzog turns his lens on the internet with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Always one to seek the surreal in the everyday, legendary German director Werner Herzog turns his lens on the internet with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
When the legendary German director Werner Herzog releases a movie, you had best sit up and pay attention. I apologise if that comes across as bossy and categorical, but the fact is that in a long and distinguished career that spans both feature films and documentaries, Herzog has created a rich and sustained filmography whose commitment to exploring the human experience is sometimes shocking, sometimes awe-inspiring but never, ever cynical. 

From his incendiary collaborations with the mad, bad and dangerous to know German actor Klaus Kinski – whose tumultuous but ultimately loving working relationship was recounted in the doc My Best Fiend  and which yielded such Herzog masterpieces as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo as well as the director’s unique take on Nosferatu – down to his more TV-friendly but no less probing recent works, Herzog has managed to survive with his integrity intact in an ever-changing, and ever-compromised, film industry. 

Now, the filmmaker who has blurred the lines between fact and fiction in his features work and who has explored such heady subjects as the fate of Vietnam POWs (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), death row inmates (Into the Abyss) and mentally unstable and bear-loving national park squatters (Grizzly Man), Herzog applies his distinctive gimlet-eyes and trademark voiceover drawl to what is arguably the defining technological phenomenon of our time: the internet.

But though the documentary begins in very much a conventional mode – with one of the web’s alleged founders, Leonard Kleinrock, enthusiastically guiding us through some of the rooms and machinery that enabled the internet as we know it to come to life in the 1960s – Herzog’s distinctive touch soon surfaces to the core to paint something that’s less purely informative and more disquieting. 

As is typical for Herzog, ‘Lo and Behold’ is also a meditation on man and nature, with the supposedly invisible mechanisms of the internet being revealed to have real life, physical consequences. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, as when Herzog visits two separate retreats: one of them dealing with internet addiction, the other providing a safe haven for those with medical complications resulting from radiation – victims, in a sense, of our newfound and fathomless desire for interconnection. 

Pioneer: Leonard Kleinrock
Pioneer: Leonard Kleinrock
The ‘dark side’ of the internet – a chapter caption even marks it out as such – is given an even deeper shade during Herzog’s interview with a grieving family who lost their daughter to a horrific car accident, only to have photographs of her decapitated body repeatedly emailed to them, malicious messages in tow. Barely suppressing her anger, the girl’s mother – Herzog stages the family’s interview like an odd but affecting wake, with the parents and the remaining children decked out in black and looking ahead from a kitchen table stacked with muffins – expresses her belief that the internet is an evil spirit-entity snaking its way through everybody, in an ongoing quest for malevolent avatars to do its bidding.   

Paradoxically, however, Herzog’s documentary is also laced with a sense of the transcendent or, at the very least, a moral centre that gives a bruised but genuine uplift to the overall experience. Because Herzog doesn’t go for the linear historical documentary route, instead treating the internet as yet another – diseased but splendid – crease from the crooked timber that is humanity, the film comes with an undeniable emotional potency. 

Herzog is also, of course, an excellent documentary interviewer, one whose final edits don’t smoothen out the creases of conversation but instead linger on moments of hesitation, sadness and vulnerability. And towards the end of the film, he puts forward a delectable mind-bender for all of his interlocutors. 

“Does the internet dream of itself?”

Confronted by Herzog’s gnomic missive, even Elon Musk – the 21st century’s very own mad scientist supreme – is forced into a long, long pause.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is currently streaming on Netflix. It will also be screened at Spazju Kreattiv, St James Cavalier, Valletta on February 3 at 21:00 and February 25 at the Citadel Cinema, Victoria, Gozo at 17:30

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...