At the age of 74, Werner Herzog has just made his 38th feature film, a documentary about the Internet titled “Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World”. The German director shows no sign of the age-related decline that has affected so many of his peers such as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Of course, given the fact that Allen hasn’t made a watchable film in over 35 years makes one speculate that he has never lived up to his accolades to start with.
Unlike the mega-celebrity from Hollywood, Herzog belongs to that rarefied world of “foreign” or “independent” films that inevitably get screened in art houses and rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. In other words, he makes the sort of film I live for, starting with his narrative film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” that I saw in 1977 and that made me a devoted fan. It starred Klaus Kinski, a member of Herzog’s repertory company at the time, as a deranged conquistador determined to find the lost city of El Dorado to seize control over its legendary riches, even if it cost the lives of every man in his expedition. In the final gripping scene, he is the sole survivor adrift on the Amazon River with monkeys overrunning his raft. It was not a stretch for a Marxist like me to see it as a critique of colonialism even though 7 years later I would be dismayed to discover that he had made a TV documentary taking up the cause of the Miskitos in Nicaragua. It was only 10 years later that I figured out that the Atlantic Coast Indians had legitimate grievances and that Herzog was right to make such a film.
If there is one thing you can predict about a Werner Herzog film, it is that it will be unpredictable. “Lo and Behold” is nominally a series of interviews with pioneer computer scientists like UCLA’s Leonard Kleinrock but refracted through Herzog’s off-kilter sensibility that runs through the film like a black thread. For example, upon the completion of his interview with Ted Nelson, who anticipated the rise of the Worldwide Web, he allows Nelson to take his photo like a fan—a gesture that defies conventional documentary techniques to say the least.
Herzog is obviously fascinated by the computer scientists who come across as gee-whiz techno-optimists who clash with his own darkly absurdist vision of life even as he shares their breathless testimonies to the spectacular rise of the Internet. It is reminiscent of his near-obsession with the German-American jet fighter pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down over Vietnam. In the 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”, he describes how Dengler became obsessed with flying after seeing Allied fighter-bombers destroying his German village during WWII.
If you’ve seen that film, you will understand why Herzog seems just as fascinated with Elon Musk whose SpaceX company is building rockets that are intended to create a colony on Mars. Like Dengler, flight brings Musk closer to eternity or at least a taste of it. In explaining the need for colonizing Mars, Musk describes it as a hedge against something “going wrong” on Earth, the result of either a manmade or natural disaster. Will we have an Internet on Mars, Herzog playfully asks. With a cold smile, Musk says that we will after sending up a few satellites to circle the planet. One can hardly escape feeling that we are in the company of someone who would have made Aguirre blanch.
The film does not limit itself to the Internet. It is also devoted to displaying the latest in robotics and interviewing the geeks who work in the field. We meet Joydeep Biswas, a Carnegie-Mellon engineer who displays six inch tall soccer-playing robots that dart about a miniature field scoring goals against each other. He has a particular fondness for robot number 8 that seems to be just a cut above the others. After Herzog asks Biswas if he loves that robot, the engineer grins sheepishly and admits that he does. It is a priceless moment.
If most of the film is devoted to the wonders of the Internet, Herzog makes sure to illustrate its dark side. He interviews the Catsouras family at their home in Orange County, near Los Angeles. The father, mother and three teen daughters sit around their dining table as the father describes the trauma they faced after a fourth daughter died in an auto accident in 2006. When a photograph taken by state troopers leaked out to the Internet showing her nearly decapitated head, the family was horrified by the photo that had gone viral and their inability to suppress it after a judge ruled that a dead person does not have the right to privacy. Mrs. Catsouras tells Herzog that the Internet was the anti-Christ to her.
As the conversation with Catsouras family over these grizzly matters transpires, your attention is fixated both on them and three trays of baked goods sitting on the table in front of them. The contrast between the muffins, cakes and cookies and their woeful experience could hardly be more striking. It makes you wonder if they prepared the goodies for the film crew and that Herzog decided to leave them on the table just for their macabre counterpoint to the matters under discussion. I am sure he did.
After the press screening, I chatted briefly with NY Times film critic A.O. Scott about “Lo and Behold”. He was a bit surprised that I did not have much to say about Herzog’s utter lack of attention to the frequently aired concerns about the political implications of the Internet’s explosive growth. There is nothing about the monopolistic tendencies of Jeff Bezos, the NSA’s ability to snoop on our emails or phone calls, the threat of cyberwarfare, and the like. Scott was right, of course, but I doubt that Herzog had much interest in making the kind of film that Laura Poitras would have made. Herzog is primarily interested in human psychology, and particularly what some might consider abnormal psychology. With his command of cinematic techniques gathered over nearly four decades and a sense of the absurd matched by very few filmmakers today, Werner Herzog marches to the tune of his own drummer. “Lo and Behold” opens at the Lincoln Center Film Society on August 19th and better theaters everywhere. Highly recommended.