Published Apr 27, 2016The idea of Werner Herzog, one of cinema's greatest lunatics, making a documentary about the internet is a joke that pretty much writes itself. Yet Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is utterly fantastical, a half-funny/half-tragic look at the web that feels like Herzog's best tonal tightrope walk in years.
Built as an operatic sweep of time, technology and human existence, Herzog divides Lo and Behold into chapters, spry movements of information that span from the internet's birth to a speculative future where the internet learns to dream. Herzog dabbles in his usual poetic mode, and he has a compelling through-line to work with here, especially compared to his more recent nature documentaries. This time around, he's fascinated by ideas of humans pushing past the limitations of their physical bodies in typically Herzogian fashion, and what it means to truly incorporate the digital into our sense of self.
These segments feel a little scattershot though, ranging from scientists working on self-driving cars to a family grieving the loss of their daughter and the fallout online after photos of her car accident were picked up by trolls to viciously harass the family. At his best, Herzog uses these segments to thematically speak back and forth between each other, impressionistically linking ideas and themes in forward motion. During the weaker moments, the film feels like it has too many tabs open on its web browser.
Still, many of the characters Herzog interviews could have made for fascinating feature documentaries in their own right. Partway through the film, he locates a rehab centre for people suffering from internet addiction, many of them young people who spend up to 50 hours at a time playing video games. In a classically uncomfortable Herzog move, he pushes a young addict to question mutating ideas of personality and identity, and whether they enjoy the idea of being an RPG fantasy character more than bring themselves in reality. His subject retreats, not wanting to relapse into old habits, and so does Herzog, a little too preoccupied with the many subjects on his mind.
Later in the film, he encounters a group of people suffering from what they claim to be radiation poisoning from cell phone signals, who have moved to a small village without any communication waves. Herzog frames these people, with their nightly campfires and fiddle music parties, as half-sincere and half-insane. It feels like a move we haven't seen from him in a long time, a classic trick to keep us on our toes about what's real and what's fake in the digital age.
Lo and Behold is certainly Herzog's best documentary since 2011's Into The Abyss. It also feels like something we should watch at home on a laptop screen; it feels just a little too rushed, and practically suggests the need for hyperlinks, with Herzog jumping from one idea to the next. Still, this is very strong work from one of cinema's most unique voices, and Herzog remains an exciting visionary.