Richard Drumm enters the world of Werner Herzog’s soccer-playing robots and plastic dolls trapped in trees.
Originally conceived of as a series of short vignettes for YouTube, each to be based around single topics, Lo and Behold was expanded into a full feature to accommodate Herzog’s interest in the multiple overlapping areas of discussion to be had on the broad notion of ‘The Internet’. Starting at the birthplace of the internet and veering as far as Mars and the sun’s solar flares, the film rather loosely glides between interviews and scientific discourse that range from the enlightening and hopeful to the terrifying and depressing. This stream-of-consciousness narrative is of course narrated by the stilted, intense, occasionally amusing and frequently unsettling tones of Herzog himself.
Fundamentally, aside from a few moments of amused or horrified “oh wow”, this isn’t exactly the most revelatory documentary on the nebulous subject on the Internet or the Singularity or whatever you choose to take away as having been the main focus of this film. But that’s not why you watch it. The draw is less the subject matter itself and more the delightful prospect of seeing Werner Herzog discuss, probe and analyse it; and on that front it does not disappoint. The acclaimed director maintains that, despite whatever impression you may have come away with from viewing any of his previous work, he is still an optimist at heart. Strangely, this does come across. He never shies away from demonstrating the darker sides of all this: be that the chaos that a solar flare’s disruptive force could wreak on our civilisation or the depraved and sick depths people can sink to when aided by the anonymity the internet affords. Nonetheless, the overriding impression the film gives is how exciting and fascinating he finds all of this and the possibility it affords as either a utility or to further explore the nature of the universe and humanity.
To this end, his particular style of interviewing aids in getting across the presence and immediacy of his enthusiasm. There is a very real sense that most if not all of these interviews were conducted in a single take. They quite intentionally forgo the finesse and over-produced sheen that most documentaries would present such interviews in and instead aim for raw emotional honesty. A heartfelt plea by one interviewee for people to take her sickness seriously, ends with another of the subjects reaching across the table to take her hand only to knock something to the ground. Any other director would have asked them to recreate a ‘clean’ version of that but Herzog doesn’t care as the main weight is behind the tears and the comforting gesture, the little annoyances are immaterial.
Further to this, he has a habit of suddenly jumping in mid-interview with new questions or thoughts that clearly just occurred to him as the person was talking. They are very evidently not rehearsed and do lead to some interesting moments. Moments like Herzog stumping Elon Musk by interrogating him out of the blue about his dreams. It’s a very well-produced film, that’s very visually polished but it’s still affirming to see these elements of Herzog’s trademark rough and honest filmmaking breaking through.
Stylistically, proceedings remain recognisably Herzogian. The music in particular is very much in keeping with the soundscapes established by his more recent output. Visually too, there are familiar touches, especially in how he lingers on his subjects longer than either we or, seemingly, they feel comfortable with. This does lead to some highly comedic pauses and hard-cuts though it remains unclear how much of this is unintentional and how much is Herzog’s bleak, dry sense of humour. And of course, what piece of Werner’s would be complete without some sudden cuts to bizarre and abstract imagery. Which one stuck out for you? I personally found the slow zoom in on a plastic doll trapped in a tree, while discussing the loss of one’s youth to video game addiction, the most curious.
In all likelihood you’d already made up your mind as to whether a Werner Herzog documentary about the internet was for you the second you heard the phrase “Werner Herzog documentary about the internet”. Still, for the undecided among you, it is an enjoyable romp and refreshing in its even-handedness. A lot of these types of exploratory pieces on technology skew to the extremes; either technology is our new god or it’s nothing but an existentially terrifying monster looming on the horizon and boy, weren’t things just better ‘back in the day?’ Lo and Behold contains shades of both of those and everything in between.
Additionally, the visual of Werner Herzog asking a nerdy technician if he loves his soccer-playing robot is funnier than anything in any comedy released this year.
In cinemas now