So you’re telling me Werner Herzog, the guy who said that “civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness,” made a movie about the internet? Why? That’s like Quentin Tarantino making a movie about Mother Theresa, or Wong Kar-Wai making a movie about eunuchs.
On the other hand, Herzog is the man who said, “Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and give me 30 years, I could build a bigger one.” There’s no human endeavor more Herzogian than the world wide web—the megalomania of startup culture is straight out of his stretch with Klaus Kinski. I see ads for Mark Zuckerberg’s solar-powered, net-neutrality-defying internet planes and I think of Aguirre’s vain quest for El Dorado. I look at photos of Mark Zuckerberg wearing a hoodie while he dines with Kenyan politicians and I see the arrogance of Fitzcarraldo’s white suit. It’s the brand, so he has to wear it, even if everyone around him thinks he looks ridiculous.
Silicon Valley’s distilled colonial ambition is perfect for Herzog, and the new documentary Lo And Behold has him at his chummiest with fellow insane pioneers. He has lots of fun letting Elon Musk get Very Serious about space travel and coaxing glory-days stories out of old hackers. More impressively, he uses his skill as an interviewer to bring normally shy techies to his level of aggrandizement. Herzog breaks through “scientific” temperaments like Donald Trump’s mythical 400-pound cyberterrorist breaks through firewalls. Leading researchers drop their pretenses and go on flights of fancy about tweeted thoughts and a device-less internet that rearranges rooms based on our preferences.
But Lo And Behold isn’t all Vitamin D-deficient nerds gushing over the digital frontier. Herzog gives equal airtime to stark portraits of the internet’s dangers. You think you spend too much time on social media? Look at the people in rehab for gaming addiction, who neglected Maslow’s needs for their World of Warcraft characters (yes, you get to hear Herzog say “diapers”). Worried about the NSA spying on you? That’s nothing, how about WWIII on the horizon of the next cyberattack from Russia or North Korea?
In chapter 3, titled “The Dark Side,” Herzog looks at online harassment, but not the stories we might expect. No racist or sexist slurs, no death threats. Instead, we get a family bombarded with emails showing pictures of their daughter’s near-decapitated corpse after a car accident. Like with Timothy Treadwell’s death in Grizzly Man, Herzog shows the family’s situation with a restraint that only adds to its singular awfulness. In his “ecstatic” version of reality, the internet’s everyday horrors have even worse counterparts.
Oscillating between the two poles of conquest and chaos, the ten chapters of Lo And Behold feel more like a listicle in movie form than a smooth progression. The web is big, and the movie is 98 minutes: it values breadth over depth. The constant distractions, arguments, and bottomless irony in my internet probably would be of little interest to Herzog, but somehow their scattershot form found its way into his movie. Like good tweets from a great author, Lo And Behold isn’t its creator’s best work, but it’s hard to look away.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510