Herzog Logs On in ‘Lo and Behold,’ a Philosophical Treatise on the Internet Age

One of his many stops in the film is an Internet-addiction rehab center here in Washington.

Werner Herzog has been making films for 50 years, and when an artist lasts that long, the distance between his original defining self and his latest work can be dizzying. For instance, who could have predicted Herzog would become a kind of holy-oddball celebrity, renowned for his films but also for his sonorous all-purpose voice, his unexpected acting roles (bothering Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher), and his presence in inexplicable encounters (pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck in Los Angeles; being shot with a BB gun in the middle of a TV interview)? We seem to be living in Herzog’s world.

As for the films themselves, consider that when he reached his full powers in masterpieces such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he was working in a raw, mystic style that examined man and nature in a strange new way. For Aguirre, Herzog threatened his leading man with a gun and almost lost his mind in the jungle; for Kaspar Hauser, he cast the lead role with a non-actor who had spent his youth in mental institutions. The films are inquisitive, open-ended, dancing along an edge of utter beauty and complete madness. The fact that either was completed at all is something like a miracle.

What is Herzog making a film about in 2016? The Internet. But if this sounds like a comedown, or a dry subject for a maniac, remember that Herzog’s work has always poked around extremities—the otherworldly moods of Klaus Kinski, the isolation of the bear-loving loner of Grizzly Man. So his documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, is perhaps not that far from his previous work. It consists of 10 vignettes, all related in some way to the outer boundaries of the Internet’s reach. We get a quick story about the Internet’s origins, a sketch about self-driving cars, and some speculation about what happens when the next big solar flare hits our wired Earth (it will be “unimaginably bad,” in the opinion of one scientist).

These factoids would be interesting if they were arranged in 60 Minutes segments, but with Herzog narrating and asking piercing questions, they become something more. Watching small robots—little Roomba-like boxes—play soccer against one another is fascinating enough. They’ve been programmed to learn and react (the Internet helps them learn from one another), and they’re no longer guided or controlled in any way while they’re playing. Then Herzog, in the midst of interviewing one of the scientists involved, asks a startling question about Robot 8, the soccer-bot that seems to have a special role in the experiment: “Do you love it?” The scientist admits that yes, yes, he does love Robot 8.

That leads into a segment on a Washington state rehab center for Internet addicts, which in turn leads to a town in West Virginia where the presence of a giant radio telescope requires an absence of electronic activity in the vicinity. The place has now become a haven for people who believe they suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. There’s also a visit to a family still wounded from the way photographs of their dead daughter were shared online. When Herzog lets the camera run on these understandably distraught people, the mother eventually gets around to declaring that the Internet itself is the Antichrist, “claiming its victories.” Herzog has always excelled at creating discomfort, although in this case his focus is a little cruel.

Herzog is in better form when pondering what love will be in the future, or when he throws in philosophical questions like “Does the Internet dream itself?” He seems to find a kindred spirit in a tattooed scientist who scoffs at the idea of traveling to Mars (what, so we can ruin another planet?) mere minutes after we’ve heard from the upbeat Elon Musk on the same subject. It’s hard to imagine Herzog being optimistic about such things. In a way, though, this film’s sheer eccentricity and willfulness are gestures of optimism. They could not possibly have been conjured by a robot. Lo and Behold, SIFF Film Center, Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Aug. 19.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are beacons of light in <em>Rafiki</em>. Image courtesy Film Movement
Getting It Twisted

What to watch for at this year’s edition of Twist: A Queer Film Festival.

Ryan Gosling blasts off as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Photo by Daniel McFadden
Sea of Tranquility

In Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling delivers a fascinating blank slate portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as star-crossed lovers. Photo by Neal Preston
Not the Brightest Star in the Sky

Lady Gaga shines in the otherwise underwhelming ‘A Star Is Born.’

First-time actor Ben Dickey (with guitar) stars as the titular country songwriter Blaze Foley. Courtesy IFC Films
Down in a ‘Blaze’ of Glory

Writer/director Ethan Hawke aptly portrays Blaze Foley’s never-made-it musical legend.

Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, and Jack Black get their kiddie horror on in The House 
With a Clock in Its Walls. Photo courtesy Storyteller Distribution Co.
Tick, Tick… Boo!

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett can’t prevent the spooky kids’ movie The House with a Clock in Its Walls from feeling a bit insincere.

If you see the poster art for Mandy and are surprised it’s wild, it’s your own damn fault.
Totally Uncaging the Cage

Nicolas Cage taps into his manical best for the acid-trip fantasy revenge film, ‘Mandy.’

Robert Redford says goodbye with The Old Man & the Gun. Photo by Eric Zachanowich/Twentieth Century Fox
Fall Movie Preview 2018

From Oscar hopefuls to broad comedies, here’s what the season’s film slate has to offer.

John Cho logs on to find his missing daughter in Searching. Photo by Sebastian Baron
Social (Media) Thriller

While not escapist fare, Searching ‘s story of a father searching for his daughter online does feel authentically of the internet.

Regina Hall (center) leads the Double Whammies crew in Support the Girls. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Character Meets Cleavage in ‘Support the Girls’

Don’t be fooled by Hooters-esque facade. The Regina Hall-led film is a warm, funny, and communal.

Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, and director Marc Turtletaub put together the pieces on the set of Puzzle. 
Photo by Linda Kallerus/Sony Pictures Classics
Can ‘Puzzle’ Fit in the New Oscars Landscape?

The understated indie boasts a fabulous performance by Kelly Macdonald, but does that matter in the Best Popular Film era?

Teens bond at a gay conversion camp in The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Photo courtesy Beachside Films
The Conversion Immersion of ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

A strong young ensemble helps director Desiree Akhavan artfully takedown conversion therapy.

The ostentatious takes center stage in Generation Wealth. Photo by Lauren Greenfield
Show Me the Money

The documentary ‘Generation Wealth’ attempts to show greed’s shallowness, but somewhat loses focus.