Werner Herzog documents Reveries of the Connected World

German-born film director Werner Herzog tackles the tangled web that is the Internet with his latest documentary film, "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World." Over the course of ten vignettes, Herzog examines the pros and cons of our Internet-connected life.

A scene from LO AND BEHOLD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
A scene from LO AND BEHOLD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Six years ago, German-born film director Werner Herzog made a remarkable film called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examined the ancient cave paintings in Southern France – quite possibly the first example of humans’ attempt at mass media. Now he has taken a journey into the future of today’s mass media with a documentary that could serve as a bookend to that film.

Theatrical one-sheet for LO AND BEHOLD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Theatrical one-sheet for LO AND BEHOLD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is an examination of the pros and cons of our Internet-connected life, delivered over the course of ten vignettes.

The film begins with the UCLA lab where the earliest version of the modern Web was created, connecting the Los Angeles campus with fellow computer researchers in northern California at Stanford. The film’s title comes from the very first message transmitted in 1969 between the computers, intended to be “LogIn,” but abbreviated due to a system failure to only the first two letters of the message, “Lo.”

This serendipitous legend echoes that surrounding Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call, “Mr. Watson, come here.” Then, through a course of interviews with luminaries of the Nets’ evolution, the movie makes the case that the creation of the Internet is easily as profound as any invention in human history.

A parade of well-known futurists, scientists and historians, from visionaries like inventor Elon Musk to hacker superstar Kevin Mitnick, embrace the progressive side of the Internet.

But some of the most affecting segments involve ordinary folk who, through random circumstance, brush up against the darker side of an ever-increasingly connected world. These include a family who lost a daughter in a gruesome auto accident, who cannot escape revisiting their tragedy online, as well as a community of exiles forced to live in as remote areas as possible to avoid their rare, but painful sensitivity to electrical wireless signals. Throw on top of that astrophysicists who warn of inevitable solar flares that will, in all likelihood, disable the power grids we completely rely on nearly every moment of our lives, and the film appears to paint a bit of a grim picture. But Herzog seeks balance, and offers just as many opportunities to celebrate the Web, such as with the roboticists who take extreme pride in their creations, almost to the point of outright love.

Werner Herzog, director of LO AND BEHOLD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Werner Herzog, director of LO AND BEHOLD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Herzog has been making movies for long enough to qualify as a living legend. And when assessed in comparison with that of contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci, Herzog’s work seems the product of an insatiably omnivorous, and almost scattershot mind, with a filmography interspersed with both fictional feature films and meditative documentaries on subjects as wide ranging as vampires, conquistadors, livestock auctioneers, bear enthusiasts, Weimar Republic conmen, his frequent acting collaborator Klaus Kinski, and ancient cave paintings. (This doesn’t even include his extensive career as a stage director of opera and a voice-actor on American animated sitcoms.)

His personal eccentricities – he doesn’t carry a cell phone, he (says he) dreams only a couple times a year, he has a predilection for really long walks – make him a worthy candidate to tackle the tangled web that is the Internet in an open-eyed manner, as he does with his latest documentary film.

Herzog’s documentary style is equally balanced, with no emphasis on flashy camera tricks. The few computer graphics are literally graphics on computer screens, not CGI. His camera often lingers on his human subjects during interviews, even when they are merely in repose, reminding us this is an exploration of the power of thinking as much as doing (not surprising, as Herzog is among the biggest advocates of the act of reading as I can think of).

However, he manages to extract some beautiful and memorable images, and his trademark deadpan humor interjects throughout his narration and interviews as well, cheekily asking many of his subjects if they believe that the Internet dreams. As typical for Herzog’s documentaries, Lo and Behold provokes further thought in its barrage of fascinating information.

In its quiet way Lo and Behold serves as the perfect antidote to this summer’s disappointing Hollywood blockbusters, despite telling a story with as many twists and emotional conflicts as the best of them.  Herzog’s methods are too mannered to be thought of as truly “thrilling,” but with the parade of genuinely interesting topics and talking heads, the film never flags.  The visuals may not be eye-poppingly memorable (Herzog himself even takes a jab at the “revoluting” interior design at UCLA’s computer lab), but he manages to gather some poetic shots amongst the seemingly mundane environments.

If 2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams brought us the first example of humans’ attempt at written communication, this new film shows us how far we’ve traveled. It also shows us how much we don’t, and may never, know.

Werner Herzog’s new film Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World screens at the Nuart Theatre through Weds., Aug. 24. Find showtimes here.