A theme unites all of Werner Herzog’s films, fiction and nonfiction alike: that life, which is so beautiful, painful, dangerous, and strange, isn’t to be taken for granted, as every portion of every element of our existence is wild and extraordinary. Such a theme is maudlin in the wrong context (watered-down variations of it fuel most Oscar winners, after all), but Herzog emphasizes in life the ecstatic and the unconventional; he’s too much of a showman and a poet to let his curiosities calcify into signifiers of platitude. In his hands, casual objects achieve timeless resonance, such as the bucket of water that hauntingly reflects the protagonist’s face in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. In Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog turns his exploratory gaze toward the Internet, shaking us out of complacently accepting as a given its now all-consuming presence.
Lo and Behold is a documentary, but that word has rarely described Herzog’s nonfiction films with much adequacy or accuracy. The filmmaker has long off and on practiced the sort of openly subjective personal-essay cinema that became somewhat prominent in mainstream America at the apex of Michael Moore’s commercial success. In this film, Herzog interviews a variety of Internet pioneers, designers, astronomers, and roboticists, contrasting their urgent, poignant, philosophically technical analyses of contemporary Internet culture with the stories of laymen who embody extreme examples of the various fashions in which the Internet routinely affects society. For instance, in one of the film’s most moving scenes, Herzog talks with people who live in a remote part of West Virginia to escape society’s radio waves, which sickens them in fashions that suggest a real-life version of Todd Haynes’s social parable Safe. Herzog also interviews a family that was devastatingly tormented by vile emails in the wake of a loved one’s death.
Herzog’s handling of the grief-stricken family epitomizes his mixture of stylization and observation. When we first see this family, they’re clearly posed by the filmmaker to form a tableau that suggests a perverse mockery of Norman Rockwell’s work, or, perhaps, of Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. The parents are off-center, on the right of the image in the background, with their children surrounding them on either sides of a large table in an affluent dining room. The family is clearly miserable, seemingly trapped in this pose, which includes symmetrically arranged pastries on the table in the foreground of the shot in a weirdly contrived gesture of accommodation, presumably to the strangers making a movie in their home, or, maybe, to us. This stylization amplifies, rather than obscures, the torment of this family, which might be less visceral if Herzog had conventionally chopped the scene up into a fragmentary succession of talking heads.
There is, as always, a casual tightrope-walking daring to Herzog’s aesthetic. Even when communicating a family’s loss, the showman in him considers ways to juice up the drama of the encounter. Herzog pulls a trick that he used in Grizzly Man, in which he refuses to probe a sensitive subject further for the sake of someone on screen while making a great show of his courtliness, which serves, of course, to imbue the scene with even greater dread than it would have if he’d simply plumbed the material that’s alluded to. As in Grizzly Man, this flourish is of questionable taste, but it serves a meta purpose: The film isn’t solely about the tendrils of the Internet, as it also details Herzog’s efforts to explore said tendrils. The biographical fuses with the autobiographical, informing Lo and Behold, like many Herzog productions before it, with a heightened, mysterious, occasionally irresistibly cheesy uncertainty that intensifies the agency of both the artist and his subjects.
A conventional filmmaker might favor the human interest stories as a way to get one through the potentially dryer behind-the-scenes detailing of the Internet’s birth, which began as a two-way conversation between computers in UCLA and Stanford in 1969. (The first one-word message exchanged between the machines is too perfectly Herzog-ian to ruin.) But Herzog takes nothing as a given, and the pioneers he interviews are revealed to be as emotionally approachable as any of his acquaintances, framed in subtly off-kilter compositions that encapsulate the emotional tenor of their orations, which often oscillate between awe (at possibility and accomplishment) and panic (at the thin line that exists between transcendence and annihilation).
An astronomer memorably discusses the way that solar flares could potentially wipe out technology, which Herzog complements with images of cosmic beauty, lingering on a simulation of the sun as it writhes in waves of fire. Hauntingly, a pioneer discusses his unrealized idea for the Internet in terms of water ripples, envisioning a system of always visible links within links that, it’s implied, might’ve fostered a greater sense of online accountability. This notion of mass accountability, for which the Internet, with its roots in intimate community, has always been woefully unprepared, is circled again when Herzog interviews various hackers and security agents, matter-of-factly painting our society’s precarious existence as being one gullible NSA or Motorola informant away from obliteration.
Lo and Behold offers no conclusions, routinely alternating between episodes that contrast exhilaration with exploitation and damnation. It takes less imagination for us to imagine the damnation, particularly in such a toxic American political climate as ours, for which the Internet serves as an efficient conduit for hatred. But there is exhilaration, namely in the democratization of knowledge, which Herzog memorably illustrates when a Stanford teacher discusses a class that he opened up online, only to discover students more gifted than those privileged few he taught on campus. Or when another scientist describes the fashioning of a video game out of molecular folding, initiating scientific innovation from the way gamers “solved” the puzzles. Or when a roboticist movingly confesses his affection for a soccer-playing robot, which foreshadows Herzog’s ambiguous conclusion pertaining to the Internet’s destiny as a biomechanical expression of thought that ironically renders community moot, catering to each person’s needs so fully as to render them an egocentric community unto themselves.
It’s this last possibility that finally gives Herzog pause. Closing on a group of bluegrass players from the National Radio Quiet Zone in Green Bank, West Virginia, as they entertain humans directly without artificial interface, the filmmaker lingers a moment to wonder what our escalating dance with progress will inspire us to abandon.
BAMcinemaFest runs from June 15—26.