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Werner Herzog Dreams of Electric Sheep

In his new documentary, the director turns his attention to the wonders of the internet.

Jeff Vespa/Contour by Getty

Werner Herzog has for decades been our seeker of anguishing extremes, from the snail-drawn atmospheres of Fitzcarraldo (1982) to the extravagant—and fatal—hubris of an obsessive intent on living among grizzly bears in Grizzly Man (2005). His studies of the Antarctic wasteland in Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and of Paleolithic cave art in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) bring stillness and focus to maximal saturation, holding on evocative images until they yield a new feeling of time. Staring at a bison shape on a rock wall, or the diffusion of light in the waters under an ice cap, we feel we might be hallucinating.

“Pay attention” could be said to be Herzog’s cinematic mantra, his mission being to cleanse the windows of perception and recover, if only for a moment, some imperiled sense of gravity and importance. In From One Second to the Next (2013), a 35-minute documentary commissioned by AT&T on the dangers of texting and driving, he keeps the camera fixed not on technology, but on the people who lost loved ones when a driver’s attention strayed. Herzog is well aware of the nature of our distracted present, and deeply fearful of its outcome.

Which brings us, hopping and skipping over the many triumphs of a long and engaged career, to Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Herzog’s new full-length documentary about our digital age. The very idea of such a switch-up boggles—that the brooding and patient explorer of the world’s legible surfaces should now take on the inchoate sublime itself: the invisible and all-pervasive internet.

Lo and Behold wants to be everything—survey, interrogation, bedazzled act of witness. Herzog presents ten titled sections that each bear storyboard headings, from “The Glory of the Net,” a nod to the possibilities of collective collaboration, to “Earthly Invaders,” a look at the ease and danger of hacking. The segments are, by turns, informational and exploratory. We see talking heads—gurus like Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, and Leonard Kleinrock, who created the mathematical theory that underpins the internet’s network—alongside an impressive array of neuroscientists, robotics experts, and astronomers. But this parade of experts only serves to highlight the core question: How does one address what is arguably the most important single development of our time, without simply mirroring its totalized diffuseness? Can Herzog bring his trademark attentiveness to bear on what is, in so many ways, a force that is shattering our attention?

The dilemma is vexing. I have come at it myself over the years from one direction and another, essaying, arguing, trying to isolate just where the transformations impinge on what we still regard as the familiar human verities. But to plant the lever you need a fixed place to stand, and increasingly it feels like everything is in motion, fluid. We must address not just the manifold technologies that are intermingling—the “what” of it all—but the matter of their effects on every aspect of private and public life. Herzog’s strategy is to move in stages—from a panoramic, if glancing, overview to a summoning of implications and portents.

The internet, like the universe, had to begin somewhere. Herzog opens with Kleinrock telling the story of the first transmission, in 1969. It began, appropriately enough, with a computer crash. Before the full word log could be typed, the system failed, delivering only lo—the ancient announcement of the imminence of wonders, and, of course, the first word of Herzog’s title.

Wonders followed, and Herzog knows that he must give them some recognition. Early segments show how users worldwide can now work together to game solutions to intractable problems, or how autonomous vehicles are changing the complexion of our human-mechanical interface. Watching these talking heads, though, I catch myself twitching, like I do when I know a thriller is setting me up. I am waiting for Herzog.

But the director insists on dutifully covering his bases. Astronomer Jay Lockman warns us of the need for signal-free airspace. Another scientist reminds us that intense solar storms could replicate the Carrington Event of 1859 and strand us in Robert Lowell’s “air of lost connections.” A young man named Tom at a rehab center for internet addiction informs us that we should start to worry when we stop being present in the real world. Yes, we say, we know, we know.

The first inkling of a shift comes from a suburban kitchen. Here we come face to face with an affectless tableau of a father, mother, and their three grown daughters rigidly posed in front of two plates of muffins. We learn that another daughter died in an auto accident, and that gruesome photos taken at the scene went viral, accompanied by a rash of ghoulish and cruel captions. The father’s narration is tense, emotional. But it’s the perfectly coiffed mother who seems to jolt Herzog out of his by-the-numbers recital, puncturing us at last into unexpected depth. The internet, she proclaims, is a “manifestation of the Antichrist.” And with this, in the midst of so many earthbound questions, the door to the irrational—and metaphysical—is unexpectedly kicked ajar.

Herzog ultimately wants to talk about scale and impact—the idea that you can’t create a global nervous system without producing massive changes in Being itself. He moves toward some of the deeper dimensions of this idea in the latter part of the film. “Internet on Mars” begins with Herzog in conversation with global entrepreneur Elon Musk. Sitting in Musk’s impressive high-tech hangar, the two men calmly discuss Musk’s massively funded initiative to colonize Mars. His goal is to create a sanctuary, off-planet, for the preservation of civilization. It all feels very progressive, a reasonable-seeming sidebar to the space epics and sci-fi novels we’ve absorbed into our unconscious. The surprise is that there is so little surprise in hearing about Musk’s plans.

But then we are abruptly whisked to a polished-looking and apparently unpopulated Chicago skyline. Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” plays plaintively in the background; the camera holds just long enough for the melody to implant itself. Cut to a seemingly serene shot of a group of saffron-robed Buddhist monks pacing about in a waterfront park—each engaged with his own cell phone. When we return to Musk, he wears a haunted expression. He confides to Herzog that the only dreams he remembers are nightmares. He does not specify what they are.

Herzog thrives on these kinds of suggestions, moments as half-hidden lotuses; they allow him an artistic reach that his army of explainers and pundits can’t. The idea of dreaming—remember the “reveries” of the subtitle—trips the associative trigger to the next level. His voice-over asks, almost idly, whether the internet is able to dream of itself. The question is anything but idle. This is Herzog’s way of finally broaching the idea of the internet as a consciousness. What is the nature of the beast, and what are its powers?

At last, some of the most unsettling issues of hyper-connectivity emerge. Herzog hints at the next level of infiltration, where technology will embed itself in our lives to the point of invisibility, the environment wired to meet, and perhaps even anticipate, our every demand. Coming generations—so one expert asserts—will inhabit an even more egotistical ask-and-be-gratified world. We will find ourselves all but bereft of deep thinking and imagination.

If only Herzog could give this idea of full embeddedness the attention it very badly needs. But the director holds off from making the kind of visionary statement that would burn through the epical thickness of techno-chaff and touch the old questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Herzog is undone, in part, by the nature of his subject. The complete transformation of Being—how to broach this on a screen that is itself a central node of the digital apparatus? I think of Wittgenstein’s famous assertion: “What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” But we can’t do that either, can we? There is simply too much at stake.

The prospect of complete transformation brings Lo and Behold to its close. In one of the final scenes, Carnegie Mellon brain researchers sit in a half-lit room theorizing about the frontiers of neuroscience. Computers very nearly read our thoughts already, they agree, and we are ever closer to inhabiting a kind of telepathic commune-sphere. Everything will soon be wired—we will tweet our thoughts to one another. The unnamed specter, and specter it is, is hive-mind-rapture, the unitary consciousness: the internet as the ineluctable melding of what has, since human origins, been a solitary proposition—we are born alone, we die alone—into some unknown totality. This prospect already hovers, oh so ominously, at the edges of our watching.

Herzog’s own heart is clearly with things as we’ve known them. People with names and biographies, objects you can knock on that will give a sound back, immensities still rich with natural light. Also slowness, difficulty, the friction of the real. He ends the film by flashing back to an earlier locale, the rural isolation of Green Bank, West Virginia, where we again see astronomer Jay Lockman, who is also a banjo player. A rowdy group of musicians bang away at the old standard, “Old Salty Dog.” The folks around them applaud—a true community.

Clear as that one image may be, however, Lo and Behold avoids visionary assertion. What remains are unexplored possibilities. At one point, for example, Herzog quips to Elon Musk that he would himself happily buy a seat on one of SpaceX’s rockets to Mars. Yes, I think, this is the Herzog documentary I want to see. Grizzly bears and Antarctic vistas are fierce and beautiful, but a lingering shot of Earth dwindling away through the porthole would etch in the mind the real heartbreaking emblem: Here is everything we are at risk of losing.