As a documentary-maker, Werner Herzog is a master of tone. His widely parodied voiceovers — breathy, raspy, ominous — are cunningly ambivalent. The interviews he conducts are seldom less than strange, often shocking, and the pacing and tenor of his films are subtly modulated.
Never more so than here. Lo and Behold is divided into chapters. The first is a fairly conventional documentary about the beginnings of the internet. Herzog talks to the people in California who made the first computer-to-computer connection in 1969, asking them reasonable questions and generally making them seem like comfortable, all-round good guys.
This is then subverted by the appearance of Ted Nelson, a cyber-pioneer who believes it has all gone horribly wrong. Rising and falling slowly on his houseboat, he tries, not entirely successfully, to explain why, eventually becoming uneasy with his awareness that some people think he is mad.
Herzog intervenes consolingly: ‘To us you appear to be the only one around here who is clinically sane.’ It is a shockingly explicit showing of his hand. Nelson dissolves in gratitude, takes out a little camera and photographs the film crew.
Next, there is a chapter celebrating ‘The Glory of the Net’ which becomes darker as Herzog gets on to self-driving, web-connected cars and robot football teams which, we are assured, will be better than the best human teams by 2050. Without quite saying it, Herzog is pondering the question, what, then, will happen to us?
This prepares us for the next chapter, ‘The Dark Side’. This consists of one supremely Herzogian set-up. An American family is gathered round a dining table on which are laid out neat plates of muffins and croissants, three daughters are seated and the parents are standing. The cold exactness of the scene is almost cruel — the parents talking about the death of another daughter and their subsequent torture by vicious internet trolls. ‘I did not know such depravity existed in humans,’ says the mother.
From this point on the tone grows increasingly exotic and anxious. We see the story of the people who, convinced that they are allergic to the electronic soup which we all now inhabit, live within ten miles of the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia. To protect the work of the telescope the area is kept entirely free from all cellular and radio signals and they are relieved of their symptoms.
There is a truly alarming discussion of the terminal effects of a giant solar flare — they happen every few hundred years — on an internet-dependent world. By the time he gets on to artificial intelligence, Herzog has started to ask some strange questions: ‘How valuable is the cockroach to you?’ and ‘Does the internet dream of itself?’
Even Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and SpaceX is thrown by this. Herzog holds a shot of him seated, staring at the floor, lost in introspection and, to his credit, taking the questioning very seriously. Finally, he admits he doesn’t remember any of his own good dreams, ‘The ones I remember are the nightmares.’
The mounting tension in the film is expressed by the reactions of the interviewees. Increasingly, they are eased out of their comfort zones, as are we. Finally, we are left with the sense that all this high intelligence and ingenuity is leading to the termination of the human. As ever, Herzog leaves us as anxious and uncertain as we are thrilled.
As an artist, Herzog springs from the New German Cinema movement that emerged in the Sixties in reaction to a perceived paralysis in German movie-making. He can also be linked to painters like Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter as well as to the photographers Andreas Gursky and Bernd and Hilla Becher. All share a vision — clear-sighted to the point of deadpan — of Germany and the world after the cataclysm of the 20th century.
Herzog’s focus has now moved to America where the near future is most busily being constructed. His gaze is that of old Europe, wonder-struck and deeply sceptical, but also ironic and amused. This is — I need hardly add — a film you are obliged to see.
Bryan Appleyard writes for the Sunday Times.