As its title suggests, Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is a broad, poetic consideration of technology’s—which is to say, humanity’s—history and future. Through interviews with the likes of Elon Musk and Kevin Mitnick, the director episodically lays bare a series of utopian visions about technology’s potential to help us learn, take us to other planets, and free us from daily tasks like driving. But Herzog’s gentle, skeptical interjections keep Lo and Behold from turning into a tech-bro hagiography. He punctuates discussions with interjections like “[Robots] can’t fall in love”—simple statements that get to the heart of the matter.
The film opens with Bob Kahn, the electrical engineer who designed the basic components of the Internet, showing off an early computer he constructed. Kahn opens the machine and describes its metallic smell, the weight of the metal, and the number of holes inside. Herzog’s power as a documentarian is his ability to push beyond the average talking-head interview, and this scene, which makes a machine that could be considered alien and impersonal seem almost sensuous, is a prime example.
Lo and Behold always offers the counterpoint to tech euphoria, with the stories of people who, in one way or another, have been victimized by the ubiquitous invisible networks that now crisscross the globe. The most poignant interviews are with people who suffer from radiation sickness and have to live off the grid in order to abate the headaches and pain of their illness.
Like many of Herzog’s best films, Lo and Behold is not afraid to dabble in the characteristic melodrama of the New German Cinema. One scene features a family whose lives were destroyed by cyber-bullying. Framed in a medium shot, they sullenly stand together around their kitchen table, almost comically offset by a bounty of muffins. Without a hint of irony, the mother says, “The internet is the spirit of pure evil and I feel like it’s running through everybody on earth.” These juxtapositions of framing and dialogue create a rich depth in which absurdity, pathos, and humor coexist.
Though Herzog has become a somewhat more conventional documentarian over the course of his career, his emotional engagement with his subjects sets him apart from the institutionalized norms of contemporary documentary, in which filmmakers are considered neutral stewards of their subjects’ interests. Lo and Behold is remarkable because it sustains an immensely complex and varied consideration of a networked world without lapsing into technological determinism. Herzog never loses sight of the human.