Film and TV

Herzog Logs On: The Inquisitive Filmmaker Contemplates the Mysteries of Our Digital Existence

Late in Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, his unsurprisingly wry, quizzical documentary survey on life inside and beside the virtual world, Werner Herzog stumps two brain researchers with a lyrical question in that instantly recognizable (and often parodied) German accent: “Does the internet dream of itself?”

An ever-adventurous and acutely observational storyteller who has cinematically explored live volcanoes, Antarctica and the menacing company of Klaus Kinski, Herzog is also a highly self-aware creature, as evidenced by his self-satirizing participation in the 2004 mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness and his later stunt casting as a villain in Jack Reacher. He seems to intend this question to be grandiose, absurd and sobering all at once. As a neophyte whose only admitted online usage is email and the occasional Google Maps inquiry, Herzog may also be the perfect outsider to explore the awesome potential and terrifying possibilities we have exposed ourselves to ever since, back in 1969, an oversized, boxy appliance at UCLA first “talked” to a computer at the Stanford Research Institute.

It might seem like 98 minutes would barely scratch the surface of how the digital world has affected our lives, which is partly true, but in this 10-chapter, thesis-less tale — from “The Early Days” to the “Future,” with many morally, philosophically and emotionally confrontational stops in between — Herzog smartly takes a broad, bird's-eye perspective of our early techno-evolution. The film is largely built on talking-head interviews with scientific experts. (That's a seemingly necessary evil when delving into this heady subject, though the aesthetic flatness offers a critical remove). Still, Herzog’s typically expressive cinematography and eye for quietly eccentric moments aren't absent: A recovering internet addict is introduced while clumsily running across a playground bridge; a hermetic community living in a cell-tower-free zone celebrates together on banjos and fiddles; cows run across a field in slow motion while a rocket launches behind them; monks stand around staring at their smartphones.

An entire generation of adults has now experienced broadband in its earliest memories, so what more is there to say about our interconnectivity that couldn’t be answered by any of us, with everyday savvy and common sense? Herzog shows no interest in social media, instead aiming his curiosities toward more illuminating topics that we likely take for granted: how a multiplayer game about biomolecules was able to crowdsource scientific discoveries, or how an autonomous-car engineer must deal with the ramifications of A.I. not understanding the values of human society. (Will a car be liable for making a mistake, or causing an accident?) In a brief yet chilling chapter titled “The Dark Side,” an affluent family whose young daughter was killed in a Porsche crash discusses how they were trolled online in the most heinous ways imaginable, before staring into the camera for an uncomfortably silent tableau.

Herzog’s thought-provoking skepticism sweeps further still. He has hackers and security analysts debate anonymity and accountability. Astronomers contend that solar flares could trigger an online blackout and force us to answer another striking question, this one catastrophic: Would our over-reliant society recover from the End of the Internet? (Herzog thankfully keeps the glib jokes coming, at one point volunteering to be a first-wave colonizer on Mars.)

The questions get bigger still in the final chapters, which concern the nature of being human and the idea that, just how the science-fiction writers of yesteryear couldn’t predict this modern world, we don't know if people, sentient robots and unforeseeable next-gen tech will play nicely together. The next time you’re elbowing Pokémon Go players out of the way because they can’t courteously walk while catching Snorlax, maybe you’ll notice that augmented reality is the wave of the future, or maybe you’ll moan that everything’s gone to Hell ... before refreshing your Instagram feed.
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Aaron Hillis is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.