Werner Herzog contemplates the Internet. What more do you need to know about "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World"? The promises and pitfalls of the digital age is the perfect subject for Herzog, a rare filmmaker who's a bigger personality than most of the people he makes films about—and considering the sorts of eccentrics, dreamers and madmen Herzog makes films about, that's saying a lot. If your work entails programming or anything related to the nuts and bolts of digital technology, you're unlikely to encounter anything in this brisk feature that you haven't contemplated at length; but if you spend a good portion of your waking life online, as increasing numbers of viewers do, but take it for granted, you may appreciate the way Herzog comes into the the subject: from a borderline-layman's perspective, wry and curious. He's equally interested in the subjects being discussed and the personalities of the experts laying it all out.
The film is broken into ten chapters, each annotated like sections of a book, each bearing the sort of quasi-mystical or vaguely ominous title that you'd expect Herzog to affix: “The Glory of the Internet,"“The Dark Side" and so on. It is essentially a promotional film, financed mainly by the cybersecurity firm NetScout, but for all its insistence on the glory of interconnectedness and the transformations it has inspired, Herzog pays nearly equal attention to the downsides, particularly government and corporate surveillance and faceless cruelty. Like a lot of stories of human-created intelligence, in its heart this one is "Frankenstein." A scientist who is inspired or mad, depending on your point of view, creates a child of sorts, and as the child grows into adolescence and adulthood, it starts to take on a life of its own, unsettling and threatening its creator to the point where it eventually seems to be telling the "parent" what to do, and even how to evolve.
The movie begins with a scientific "birth," with shots of students walking in slow motion across the University of Southern California Los Angeles. The music is the opening of Wagner’s Ring, the Prelude to Das Rheingold; it was memorably used in Terrence Malick's "The New World,' but it is also associated, like all Wagner's work, with Hitler, who adored Wagner and derived the philosophical underpinnings of Nazism from Wagner's political writing. Many of Herzog's filmmaking choices have that kind of double-edged appropriateness. As Herzog muses on the depressing ugliness of institutional hallways in an academic building on campus, we see a trim older gentleman, computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock, leading the camera through a doorway that leads to the room where the Internet was born in 1969. As Kleinrock shows us the first node in the Internet and talks about ARPANET, a government-supported data network that would use the technology later known as "packet switching," Herzog doesn't interrupt his lively, polished monologue. He seems delighted by Kleinrock's brilliance, enthusiasm and showmanship. The viewer might expect the rest of the film to unfold in this mode, with the director interviewing various scientific founders and technology boosters, creating a gallery of inspirational character sketches along the way.
But two segments later, the film takes a sharp turn into despair and disgust as Herzog visits the parents and siblings of Nikki Catsouras, who was crushed and nearly decapitated in a car wreck in 2006. A highway patrolman at the scene took a photo of her corpse, as regulations required, but then forwarded it to colleagues, and somehow it slipped free and circulated everywhere, and the trolls got hold of it and immediately began tormenting her family by emailing them the photo with snide or vile captions like "Woo hoo, daddy! I'm still alive!" The family was so horrified that they withdrew from online life and homeschooled their youngest daughter. Catsouras' mother flat-out tells us that she thinks the devil lives in the Internet and is slowly but surely making all of us more like him.