Werner Herzog, legendary auteur, prolifiic documentarian, whose many films include Aguirre Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Rescue Dawn, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World, is also a cult internet celebrity. That trademark rain-on-everyone's-parade gloominess, those deadpan Bavarian-accented voiceovers: Herzog's shtick generates viral memes of grandiose proportions. It is not unlikely, after reading this article, your Facebook newsfeed will serve you ads for Herzog's online filmmaking master classes.
Yet, the famed, German-born director notoriously eschews life online. At least he has until now, the 25th anniversary of the internet in 2016, where he shares thoughts in a new documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. Asking big questions about human reliance on technology and the future of humanity, Herzog nevertheless remains oddly remote from his subject.
Such distance is striking, because, unlike Herzog's far-flung adventures into the Amazon, Antarctica, or the Australian Outback that take his entranced spectators to radically new places, this documentary of the internet covers well-trodden territory. Herzog interviews the movers and shakers of a now oft-told and very familiar story about the dawn of the internet age and its potential directions. Most of the informants interviewed in Lo and Behold--with important exceptions, especially the very cool, tattooed astronomer Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz of the Adler Planetarium--are white, middle-aged males.
Of course, historically speaking, these demographics make sense for this topic. The internet began as a white male enterprise, and Herzog is at his best when he invites his subjects to play themselves. Filming ARPANET pioneer and UCLA engineering professor Leonard Kleinrock in slow-mo with Wagner's "Vorspiel" to Das Rheingold swelling in the background, Herzog serves up a cheeky internet creation story. Kleinrock is game. He bangs on the old steel Interface Message Processors (IMPs) case, loudly sniffs the authentic aroma of modems and machines, and bursts into archaic balladry with "lo and behold," riffing off the first internet transmission, "LO" which crashed before the rest of the word "LOGIN" could send.
While the film makes no effort to be more diverse or inclusive-- Silicon Valley's enduring problem-- there are pauses in the pessimism. At one point, Herzog shows the great potential of internet crowd-sourcing medical research. Then, as if on cue, he exhales his usual ennui, "the world responded, and it was beautiful." The self-parody is equally sublime, or is it not parody?
Herzog does seek an alternative view, allowing internet pioneer Ted Nelson elaborate his ill-fated, oft-derided two-way network concept. When Nelson complains that others have thought him mad, Herzog demurs, "No, to us you appear to be the only one around who is clinically sane." Despite this assurance to Nelson, the internet outsider and confirmed houseboat resident (no Silicon Valley mansion for him!), Herzog in fact extends even more screen time to the storied internet celebrities Danny Hillis, Lawrence Krauss, Kevin Mitnick, Jonathan Zittrain, Sebastian Thrun, and Elon Musk--Is it a surprise Herzog wants to go to Mars?
The director proves less much generous with the weepy and eccentric female internet hermits, the pasty, puffy anonymous cybersecurity desk-jockeys, and the mourning, and heavily eye-linered mother of Nikki Catsouras, whose leaked police photo of her car accident death went viral on the internet. Herzog's camera zooms in on Mrs. Catsouras, matching her beige face to the neatly stacked, uneaten muffins and croissants on the kitchen counter. The bereaved mother's denunciation of the internet as "evil" is presented as both pathetic and absurd.
"Well it's not the internet that is evil. It's human beings that are evil," quips Herzog in a Rolling Stone interview."They only have a new, different instrument to make it manifest, but it's the same thing. Is the internet good or evil? That's not a question that has any relevance. It's the same thing like, Is electricity good or evil? You don't ask this question."
This philosophically-minded director knows better of course, and instead of reflecting on the internet as a place of multiple conflicting viewpoints, Herzog tosses in one of his trade-mark absurdist musings: "Does the internet dream of itself?"
Supposedly riffing on Prussian theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz, Herzog echoes his previous films: Can penguins can go insane? Where do the green ants dream? In Lo and Behold, the Herzogian philosophical question produces no particular lucidity on the problem of thinking machines and the future of the internet. Nor does Herzog intend as much. He's simply here in this film to be Herzog.
Sebastian Thrun offers that no AI could make films like Herzog. The director chuckles modestly, "of course not." In such exchanges it becomes clear what's missing from this documentary--an understanding of the internet not merely as a bastion of celebrity, ephemeral or ever-present, but rather as a place of open and diverse communication. Herzog's vision gives us cyberbullying, cybercrime, cyberaddicts, gamers in adult diapers, but it says nothing about the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, nor any kind of liberation activism from Hong Kong to LGBTQ communities to all manner of students, artists, writers and filmmakers who share their work online.
Although Thrun asserts that the best students in his online courses were not from Stanford University, but from somewhere else in the world, Herzog doesn't ask about these people. Nor is he interested in exploring the variety of humans online.
Completely comfortable with the singularity of his viewpoint, Herzog clearly enjoys his status as a walking meme. In fact, he's amused by the many who impersonate him, calling them his "unpaid bodyguards." Do these fans help him dream his reveries on the connected world? It's not clear. In any case, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World invites conversation about a world transformed online.