Werner Herzog is someone that I’m happy is making movies today but who I also tend to approach with a certain amount of skepticism. It’s not that there’s anything about his films that have made me question them exactly but Herzog is such a larger than life figure that I sometimes worry that fans get a little too wrapped up in his cult of personality and maybe over-rate his actual films because of this… or maybe that’s an unfair way of looking at it. For those who don’t know, Herzog is a German filmmaker who’s been making films all over the world for almost fifty years at this point and there have been all sorts of colorful stories about the crazy things he’s encountered while making them. He’s not necessarily a master craftsman and his screenplays aren’t necessarily great literature unto themselves, he’s nonetheless able to inject all his projects whether they be scripted features or documentaries with his grandiose worldview. Especially when he’s in documentary mode he makes a lot of grand pronouncements and to watch one of them is to almost feel like you’re in the presence of some kind of mad genius whether or not the film is itself brilliant. Perhaps if a film is effective at conveying a director’s personality and that personality is fascinating and entertaining that alone should be good enough to make the film great and I should stop being so suspicious but at the same time I do think it’s worth being a little on guard just the same rather letting one’s opinion of the man completely cloud one’s opinion of the films.
Herzog’s latest documentary (which is basically a video essay of sorts) is, oddly enough, one that has less of Herzog’s (literal) voice than we’re used to hearing in his non-fiction works. The subject this time around is the internet and other forms of 21st Century technology and their effects on society. We hear from early pioneers of the internet, Silicon Valley figures (including Elon Musk), cyber-security experts, and some people who feel like the internet has ruined their lives like alleged former internet addicts, people who were made public spectacles after a family tragedy, and people who are allergic to wi-fi signals. Herzog doesn’t do the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock thing where he announces that he’s going on a personal odyssey and films himself as he travels to these various interviews. Rather the various interviews come via numbered segments divided by subject and the audience is left to come up with their own through-line for the whole thing.
It is notable that Herzog himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one. We certainly hear him asking the occasional outlandish question off screen (E.G. “does the internet dream”) and he does occasionally make an observation or two via narration but not as much as usual. At times it almost feels less like a Herzog more and more like an Errol Morris movie of the Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control variety. Sometimes you get the feeling that he is perhaps injecting himself less because he’s a bit in over his head with this particular subject and doesn’t always seem able to verbally spar with the experts here. He’s said in interviews that he is not personally much of an internet user beyond e-mail, but he doesn’t exactly seem like a total luddite here. As the title would suggest he seems to be in awe of what we’ve created albeit sometimes a frightened awe. In particular he worries that, given our dependence on the internet, the results could be disastrous if the whole system came crashing down and he cites the Carrington Event of 1859 (a solar flare that would have had an EMP like effect had it happened today) as an example of something that could do just that.
Ultimately I do kind of wish there was more Herzog in this Herzog movie. I started out this review suggesting that I was a bit weary of Herzog making his personality the main attraction of his movies, but it’s pretty clear that that’s the schtick that’s worked for him and I kind of missed it a bit here. Whenever his voice does come into this movie it almost immediately adds energy to the proceedings and I would have liked more. As it stands Lo and Behold, Reveries of a Connected World is neither the best Herzog movie nor the best movie about modern technology but it is an interesting watch nonetheless. Definitely worth watching if it ever shows up on Netflix or something, but I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to the theater for it necessarily.