Most documentaries are informative, and many are quite entertaining, but few need to be films. Documentaries about broad, abstract concepts most often feel like they could just as easily be slideshow lectures or long-form articles in The New Yorker. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the internet, is both a great documentary and a great film. It is a thought provoking work with detailed attention to juxtaposition and pace that doesn’t feel like it could be made by any other director or in any other medium. This is especially impressive given that most opinion pieces about the internet, particularly those authored by septuagenarians, or by self-proclaimed Luddites, are frustratingly unoriginal screeds of nostalgia and fear.
Herzog manages to thoughtfully comment on the internet by not treating it as exempt from the usual forces of nature and society, despite the temptation to view it as unrelated to other forms of communication because of its unprecedented depth and power. Herzog’s choice of subject may seem unexpected, but its central thesis is in line with his previous films. On the set of Fitzcarraldo, a narrative film about an Irishman with a fanatical impulse to drag a steamship over a steep hill to access new rubber territory in Peru, Herzog says about the jungle, “The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing. They just screech in pain.” In his documentary Grizzly Man, which chronicles the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a bear enthusiast, Herzog says in voiceover narration, “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears.
And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” The internet, even though it was made by people, is, like nature, a force too vast and powerful to be controlled, let alone understood. Herzog argues against the human tendency to idealize what it cannot control and anthropomorphize what it cannot understand. As the jungle is not a placid or joyous environment just because we want it so, and bears don’t think like humans just because we don’t understand how bears think, the internet is not necessarily a positive force because it is beyond our control, nor does it behave like human actors because its future is beyond our comprehension.
Herzog’s narration sometimes verges on self-parody in Lo and Behold, but parody is only biting insofar as it reveals hypocrisy. Herzog’s lines are often predictably dramatic (“Have the monks stopped meditating? Have they stopped praying? They all seem to be tweeting”) and outlandish (for example, he tells Elon Musk that he would volunteer for a one-way voyage to Mars), but nothing he says seems without serious purpose or sincerity. His frequent comments, in fact, serve to lend both coherence and verve to the subtly well-plotted, but wide-ranging film.
Herzog dutifully and effectively catalogues some more technical aspects of the internet’s story by covering its creation and its early days, and he delves into some topics less directly connected with the internet—like hacker subcultures, the science of robotics, and the potential dangers of solar flares—but his interest clearly lies in the philosophical questions that emerge from these subjects. Herzog notes that Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian war theoretician in Napoleonic times, famously said, “Sometimes war dreams of itself,” and asks several of his sometimes initially bemused interview subjects whether the internet dreams of itself. It is a difficult question to answer. Certainly, though, we dream of the internet.