When you see a documentary by the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, you know you’re seeing a true-life subject through a very particular point of view. His is a strange view of the world, but it’s always hopeful, compassionate, and deeply human, even if he’s showing us things that are not at once easy to relate to. For his latest doc, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog has again tackled a lofty topic — the creation and legacy of the Internet itself — and does so in a way that truly no one else could. You know, pretty weirdly.
For the past several years, Werner Herzog has become like the German Christopher Walken; his appearance anywhere outside of his films is hilarious on its own. Lo and Behold is not without its quintessential “Herzogian” quips, including the very first sentence of narration in which he calls a particular corridor in UCLA’s science department “repulsive.” Quotes like that make it easy to forget he’s also one of the best and most singular living filmmakers in the world. It’s his unique way of seeing the world, which is equal parts joy and misanthropy regarding humanity, that sets movies like this above the usual spate of documentary.
Herzog tackles a wide range of topics pertaining to “the connected world,” and about the World Wide Web itself. He speaks to experts about what might happen in the future regarding the Internet. He asks several of them the seemingly unanswerable question “is the Internet dreaming of itself?” He looks at robots being created which mimic human movement for specific purposes and whether they might one day, indeed, take us over. He talks to Elon Musk about trying to get us to Mars and also leading researchers in the field of electric brain activity. The movie really runs the gamut.
Perhaps more interestingly, and much more disturbing, are some middle sections which discuss the darker side of the Internet. He speaks to a family whose daughter died in a horrific car crash and the cyber-bullying they experienced when a first responder took a photo of the girl’s mangled, dead body and disseminated it on the web. He also talks to people who are in rehab for internet and gaming addiction, treating it as the same and as destructive as any drug out there. And he also speaks to a community in New England which, because of scientific research into radio waves, lives entirely removed from cell phone towers, and to the people who have been physically ill from cellular radiation that moved to the idyllic town to escape the pain they’ve suffered (though such pain has been proven to be psychosomatic, and not a result of the radiation itself). All deeply fascinating.
With such a wide spray of topics and subjects, Herzog doesn’t really get to the bottom of anything, but I also don’t think he’s trying to. He’s more presenting brief glimpses into worlds and experiences that didn’t and couldn’t have existed 50 years ago. As in most of his documentaries, Herzog narrates it himself and allows his own question-asking off-camera to be part of the film’s narrative, and that personal touch is why it succeeds. We need the author to be present in order to understand his frame of reference. Also, it’s just a damn delight to hear him speak, and yes, a few of the things he says do illicit some laughter without meaning to, but it’s all part of seeing real-life people through Werner Herzog’s eyes.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is playing the Sundance Film Festival and will likely be picked up (how could it not?!?!), so I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find it streaming on Netflix very soon.
4 out of 5 Interconnected Burritos
Image: Cinetic Marketing
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!