Herzog in Newburyport
I was certain that Werner Herzog, madman German filmmaker par excellence, once said that part of the reason he makes films is that he does not dream at night as all other humans do, but an internet search for the comment came up short. Now, I’m convinced that I must have dreamed it.
My confusion is apt considering his latest documentary film, “Lo And Behold: Reveries Of The Connected World,” an engaging if ultimately unsettling examination of the internet — how it came to be, what it means to us now and where it’s going. Somewhere about midway into this rabbit hole of a motion picture, Herzog, who also narrates in his dulcet Bavarian purr, poses the zinger: “Does the internet dream of itself?” and much of the joy of the film comes from watching as a number of scientists and theorists try to answer the question.
Herzog was for the longest time best known for his fiction films, especially those featuring the brilliant lunatic, Klaus Kinski, who in “Aguirre: The Wrath Of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” played obsessives bordering on madness set against the hostile environs of the Peruvian jungle. The productions of these films are legendary and tested the mettle of cast and crew.
In recent years, Herzog has become a cultural icon and elder statesman. Possessed of an unparalleled gift for hyperbole, he has gifted the world with such nuggets as, [speaking about his filmmaking] “Perhaps I seek certain utopian things, space for human honor and respect, landscapes not yet offended, planets that do not exist yet, dreamed landscapes. Very few people seek these images today.”
Eschewing the fly-on-the wall, objective approach of the traditional documentarian, Herzog brings a theatricality and stylization to his docs. His goal is to achieve, in his own words, “ecstatic truth” — an amorphous concept which grants him free reign to structure and stage his “non-fiction” films as he sees fit, whether it be returning a former prisoner of war and fighter pilot to Vietnam to reenact his capture and torture (“Little Dieter Needs To Fly”) or assembling the exquisitely shot video footage of Timothy Treadwell, a young man suffering under the delusion that wild bears were his friends, in such a way as to support Herzog’s notion that true artists must be willing to suffer death in order to realize their vision. In “Lo And Behold,” Herzog injects himself into the fabric of the story, becoming as much participant as observer, whether he’s asking a young engineer if he “loves” his soccer-playing robot or jumping at the chance to let entrepreneur extraordinaire and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk know that he would gladly be the first to join his privately-funded mission to Mars.
The film begins with an introduction to “a sacred space” on the campus of UCLA where we find the refrigerator-sized tank of a computer on which the first email was sent. Soon, we are adrift in darker waters, forced to examine the vulnerability of a civilized world in which everything, including the delivery of vital goods and services, is managed online. It would only take something like a well-aimed cyber-attack or solar flare disturbance to send us back to the dark ages — scenarios that the experts interviewed in the film contend are not only probable but likely.
While the forecast is grim, Herzog is such an old hand at this that you can’t help but smile in spite of yourself. Take for instance the image of a blank-eyed chorus of alabaster-skinned sisters sitting at a kitchen counter before a display of freshly-baked muffins as their mother rages about the internet being infected by evil spirits. Indeed, there’s so much to marvel at and chew on: an astronomer who moonlights as a banjo player in an Appalachian folk band, South Korean youths wearing diapers so as not to interrupt video game sessions that go on for days, a view of the future in which the very room you enter will reconstruct itself to meet your individual tastes and needs, that you don’t mind that there doesn’t seem to be any overriding theme to the film.
Of course, to pose the question, “Does the Internet Dream Of Itself?” is to suggest that the technology of the internet has the ability to evolve into an artificial intelligence capable of realizing the horror of classic science fiction, wherein our servant robots rise up to overthow us, casting us into existentially stormy seas, but for the running time of the film, Herzog is steering the ship, and we’re okay with that.
“Lo and Behold” is playing at the Screening Room in Newburyport, now through Dec. 1. For times and information, visit them at newburyportmovies.com.