Bergen International Film Festival 2016
There’s an inherent predicament in Werner Herzog’s more contemporary work. As a man many would regard as one of the foremost documentary filmmakers of all time continues to push out brilliant and idiosyncratic work, he cannot escape his own caricature. Memes and satire is ingrained with his name on social media (i.e. Werner Twertzog) and he doesn’t shy away from it either, with appearances on The Simpsons and Parks and Recreations. It can be a challenge to separate the man from the meme, and with Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World – a movie about the internet – one would assume even more so, but quite the opposite in fact, it is very difficult to find any sense of Herzog here, the documentary filmmaker or the meme.
Towards the end of Lo and Behold, Herzog poses the question; “does the internet dream of itself?” It is the most philosophical question and idea brought forth in the film, and it is a question that could’ve made up the entire run-time. Instead it is relegated to the end, a side-step, a momentary plunge into the metaphysical and abstract. This is one of very few moments where you can actually feel Herzog’s presence in the film, while the rest feels more like an anonymous someone going down a pre-rendered checklist of things that is expected to be present in a documentary like this. We have the history lesson; we have the abuse that can arise from the anonymity of online discourse; we have the altruism of online studies – where a teacher can speak to a thousand students instead of a hundred; we have the dangers of online gaming; we have idealists talking about the future of technology, and of course, we have the warning calls of what might come. While it may seem like a plus for a documentary to cover so much ground, to allow pros and cons equal space on the screen, it feels entirely shallow here. It is given no room to grow or breathe, it feels hindered by its own creation, like a Hollywood production where studio interference wash away any semblance of identity and creativity. Even if the films desire is to leave it open for audience members to reflect upon when the credits roll, there’s not enough substance anywhere to inspire much curiosity.
There are moments of aspired beauty to be found in the film, however, moments where one can feel the idiosyncrasies of Herzog boiling beneath the surface. It is whenever he allows a degree of subtlety, or philosophising on the fundamental ideas of connection and communication. The aforementioned question of dreams is one, and in a slight digression that will steer back into the qualities of the documentary, it reminds me of the projects we’ve seen from Luke Turner, Nastja Rönkkö and Shia LaBeouf. Not in the presentation or performance, but in their idealistic and pure examination of the internet as a tool and extension of ourself. The overarching theme in their art installations can be read as a counter-argument to the thought that the internet is solely an impersonal vacuum; that it can be more than an arena for shallow and tacit faux communication and conversation. Lo and Behold seems equally open-minded, but less articulate. It never manages to transcend the language of a very basic, introductory documentary.
In an interview with Vice, Werner Herzog elaborates on a comment he makes in the documentary; that he would go to Mars on a one-way journey. He wouldn’t want to be the filmmaker of Mars, though, but rather the poet of Mars. His reason is childishly simple; “curiosity,” and it is this, this very simple element that seems to be suppressed in Lo and Behold, and that is why – albeit a fine documentary about its topic – it never arrives at the highs it could’ve reached.