It’s probably a fair question to ask at this point: Do Werner Herzog’s movies need quite so much Werner Herzog in them? There has been a growing fear among longtime admirers of Herzog’s films, of which I am certainly one, that Herzog the Public Personality has been starting to sneak in around the edges of Herzog the Director, and to ill effect. Anyone who has loved Herzog for decades can’t help but be a bit tickled by the rest of the world waking up to the oddball German’s comedic potential, from voicing a character on Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty to his immortal appearance on Parks & Recreation as the owner of a creepy house. (“This was a holding cell for people who went insane.”)
But as Herzog’s profile has risen, you can’t help but wonder if it’s starting to effect his movies. Herzog has always been an undeniable presence in his films even when he’s not on screen, but he’s starting to take center stage in a way that distracts from the point he’s trying to make. You start to wonder which Herzog we’re seeing: The personality or the director. It’s starting to be a problem.
Herzog’s new film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, is concerned with the internet and how dramatically it has altered our planet. Herzog, in a vacuum, is the perfect filmmaker to tackle this subject; his alien way of looking at things, should allow him to take a step back and process this radical change. But I’m not sure Herzog can take a step back anymore. It’s increasingly possible that the meme of Herzog is surpassing the man. I found myself spending much of Lo and Behold hoping that Herzog would get out of the way.
Among the many people Herzog surveys in his shambling narrative is Elon Musk, the futurist CEO of SpaceX and Tesla and one of the wealthiest people in the world. Herzog asks Musk about his desire to colonize other planets, and how our connected world has its own limitations, and then, right when Musk is about to say something interesting or weird—almost everything Musk says is always both interesting and weird—Herzog interrupts him. “Will you take me on your rocket?” Musk looks confused. “Your rocket? Can I go on it?” Herzog repeats. Musk loses his train of thought and gathers himself to respond to Herzog in a patronizing but entirely understandable way, sure, crazy old Werner Herzog, you can go on the rocket. And thus the entire conversation is derailed. There are moments in this film in which Herzog approaches something, profound and yearning, like he does in his best films, but then Herzog the performer pops in and does a little dance, and we’ve lost where we were going.
Herzog is onto some good stuff here, to be sure. The film’s most compelling scenes feature two neuroscientists who study how brain waves can be picked up without actually being connected to the patient itself, opening up the idea that we might be able to communicate telepathically. It’s an actual scientific possibility, and Herzog sees it with the awe it deserves, though I’ll confess I could have done without his punchline: “So does this mean we could someday just tweet our thoughts?” Yes, Werner, that is perhaps the least interesting thing we could do with telepathy. Herzog also has a grand time with hacker Kevin Mitnick, who tells some giddy tales of messing with the FBI not for personal gain, but just because he could: “You just wanted a trophy,” the director says. Herzog casts a wide net and come across some compelling figures, including the Korean gamers who play for so many straight hours they’ve taken to wearing diapers so they do not have to stop. These people were made to be in a Werner Herzog film.
But the narrative is still awfully scattershot. Herzog wants to touch on the massiveness of this new world we find ourselves in, but it’s just too large a world for him to get his arms around. He never truly finds his entry point. He spends some time talking to “hermits” who believe the internet is making them sick and have retreated to the woods—frankly, I found myself wondering if Herzog should have just dropped what he was doing and made the whole movie about them—instead he gives them a few scenes to mug and then moves on. In one scene, Herzog interviews the family of Nikki Castouras, a teenage girl who was decapitated in a car crash and had photos of her on the scene leaked and distributed throughout the web. What does Herzog think of this? Is he appalled? Is it an inevitability that we gawk? Does this make us less human?
Herzog doesn’t so much pose the questions as he does paw at them and then prance away. At times, particularly with the Catsouras family, it feels a bit ghoulish—they don’t know they’re in a playful documentary about the internet made by a deadpan cinematic folk hero. In his best films (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss), Herzog can find the bits of absurdity beneath the profound sadness on the surface, but he never forgets that sadness: They feel human and alive. Here, though, he’s just dancing about, to and fro, touching on some ideas but never examining them all that closely. The one constant is Herzog himself—he is omnipresent. There is plenty to recommend in Lo and Behold. But I recommend that next time, Werner should sit a few more plays out.