It might seem counterintuitive that a director known for vivid portraits of human madness and struggle with nature would examine the impersonal, digital subjects of the internet and robots. Nevertheless, Werner Herzog has turned his signature gaze to cyberspace in Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. And in doing so, he has enlivened the debate in a remarkable way. From Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1977) to Grizzly Man (2005), Herzog has chronicled personal obsessions that drive mankind to the precipice of our humanity in both his fiction and documentary work. It is unsettling and, perhaps, no surprise at all, then, that our relationship with revolutionary technologies should be the subject of his latest film.
And the director is no Luddite. At least he has addressed technology and its effects on us in his work before. Netflix and other platforms feature an important short film that he made about the perils of texting while driving, entitled From One Second to the Next (2013). But it’s Herzog’s ability to discern something sinister in our use of our iPhones that connects these current documentary explorations of digital culture with his naturalist and romantic works. Lo and Behold is something of a culmination of a set of thematic and philosophical concerns that have marked his filmography for years, which find new expression in the dance between humans and the Cloud.
The film has a playful and effective structure. It considers the internet from its birth to its potential ends. And it does so, in non-linear fashion, through a series of chapter-like vignettes that lend an enjoyable rhythm to the documentary. You might say that such a tempo accommodates newly adapting twitter brains with their short-term memories working in overdrive.
But the most ingenious conceit of Lo and Behold is the one betrayed by its title. “Lo” was the content of the first message sent by a computer from UCLA to Stanford in 1969. And it was a glaring mistake. The intended message was “Log in.” But UCLA Professor Leonard Kleinrock, who headed the lab that made the pioneering communication, explains that it was a providential error. Because “Lo” evokes the biblical expression “Lo and behold.” Such reverence, undercut by irony, encapsulates the film’s cheeky approach to its subject, which all of its interviewees discuss in terms of utmost seriousness. The vocabulary of everyone with something to say about digital technologies in this documentary gravitates toward eschatological terms. Depending on their biases and outlook on the connected world, their discourse tilts to evangelical or apocalyptic overtones.
On the one hand, a young engineer of Carnegie Mellon’s autonomous soccer-playing robot team expresses his love for superstar “athlete” robot Number Eight. Researchers and entrepreneurs outline technological innovations that will send colonies to Mars and build robots capable of saving us from nuclear meltdowns. While at the opposite extreme, victims of cyber harassment and others affected by radiation sickness paint a much less optimistic vision of the internet. One goes so far as to call it the incarnation of the Antichrist. Theoretical physicists and engineers ponder how a large solar flare might transform our world into a landscape from Mad Max after eradicating our technological capabilities. They even wonder whether in three generations any human contact will be necessary, or just a tedious intrusion into our digital cocoons.
Even after proposing the lofty metaphysical question “Does the internet dream of itself,” Herzog brings the conversation back down to earth through humor. His wry interjections of a skeptic punctuate conversations with the true believers in the world-transforming potential of new technologies and its detractors alike. It is Herzog’s simultaneous exhibition of curiosity, awe, and irreverence in the face of the digitally connected world that makes Lo and Behold a unique treatment of its subject that is not to be missed.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.