Directed by Werner Herzog
I’ve never felt this scared of the internet before, but I should’ve known this would happen. This is only the third Herzog documentary I’ve seen (after Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss), but it’s enough of a trend to notice the ways in which he probes deep into his subjects. In those first two instances, the subject is more of a person than an idea, but with Lo and Behold it’s something as widespread as the internet.
Herzog attacks the issue from all sides. He breaks the film up into chapters and after getting into the formation of the internet, he talks to people who look at this technology with awe and those who believe it to be the devil’s work. When you spend time with these subjects you are made to understand exactly why they feel the way they feel. The internet isn’t one thing, Herzog is saying, it’s a large, almost abstract force that affects our lives in insane, specific ways. The way your life is enhanced or restricted by this force may be drastically opposed to the way it impacts the life of another.
As in his other documentaries, Herzog himself is a character here. You get the sense that a Herzog documentary has as much to do with the director as it does with the subject onscreen. This is a man telling us about something going on in the world, very much filtered through his point of view. That being said, the film is very balanced, but this balance has more to do with the almost unimaginable scope of the internet than it does with taking sides.
This documentary could very easily be hours and hours long. There is so much to cover that I got the impression we were often only scratching the surface. As much time is given to the dangers of the internet (addiction, bullying, hacking) as is given to a discussion of where this is all headed (life beyond earth). In scope, the latter seems much more vast than the former, so in a few instances you’re given a whole story, and in others we briefly touch on a much longer story.
In each interview, Herzog presses his interview subject with varying degrees of curiosity, intensity and empathy. In one interview he interrupts Elon Musk to make a joke, and he leaves it in the film. In later moments he asks the same question, “does the internet dream of itself?” and he leaves in the audio of himself asking the question. Then the camera lingers on those interviewed as they ponder the question. The way they initially react to and digest this question seems to say much more than their subsequent response.
In these vignettes, Herzog focuses on a certain emotion. Because there is so much to cover, and Herzog likely knows he can never address everything to do with the internet, he emphasizes how people feel in regards to this… thing. The first subject takes us into a room on the UCLA campus where the internet essentially began. He sounds like a tour guide talking to us with rehearsed but genuine excitement. Later we will talk to a famous hacker who is both proud and lightly ashamed of his past line of work. We talk to the family of a daughter who died in a car accident, photos of which spread through the internet and stripped her of any privacy. The despair in this moment is palpable, and these could be people straight out of Into the Abyss. In this ‘scene,’ the family left out baked goods for Herzog and his crew, but his cinematographer suggested they leave the food on the table and in the shot, as he believed it added to the portrait or the emotion of the scene. Then Herzog instructed the family to look to him directly after one of them finished answering a question. The result is erie, as everyone’s eyes shoot in the same direction offscreen, giving us the impression that they know something we don’t, and because of what they’ve experienced, they do.
We talk to people who are excited about what this technology promises for the future and people who are apprehensive about where we’re headed because of what we’ve done to ourselves thus far. We touch on attempts to settle a colony on Mars with the understandable belief that life on Earth can only last so long. In one shot of Elon Musk, he sits in silence, pondering a question for quite some time. Because of what we’ve seen right before, a discussion about humanity’s destruction of Earth, we believe we know what Musk is thinking about, our own mortality. Are all these attempts just futile attempts to prolong the inevitable, even if on an enormous, long-term scale?
At this point a discussion on the internet becomes a question of what the meaning of any of this is. Herzog’s films have a tendency to offer no answers. They just raise questions, often with an existential tint. Here’s an example from another one of his films.
However you feel watching this is probably how you’ll feel watching Herzog’s films.
Up Next: Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (2016), The Seven Year Itch (1955), 50/50 (2011)