Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, is a meditation on technology and humanity that includes interviews with everyone from developers of the early Internet to astrophysicists to Elon Musk.
It’s also a film with a strange genesis. Lo and Behold is the result of a collaboration with Netscout, a hardware company that was originally interested in Herzog making short films about what would happen if the Internet was disrupted.
"I immediately declined because I thought it was an attempt to hire me for a commercial," Herzog tells Co.Create. "I have had an attitude in all my working life that I’ve never done commercials because I feel uncomfortable with the consumer civilization in which we are living. I feel uncomfortable and I would not like to somehow instigate and promote consumerism even further."
"It turned out, no, it was much more like something I did for YouTube once about texting and driving. I was told it was something like that, and in fact I was completely left alone and could do whatever I wanted to do. [. . .] It was a very pleasant collaboration, and they loved the film when they were finished. We all watched it and they loved it. They were proud to be part of it."
When you watch Lo and Behold, it feels like an installment of Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos filtered through Herzog’s sensibility in the best possible way.
In one of the film’s most arresting scenes, Herzog is interviewing Elon Musk and asks him to take him to Mars.
According to Herzog, "I said if you were doing that, I would volunteer to be on board if you didn’t find anyone who would volunteer."
"I said this to make the discourse a little bit livelier. He (Elon Musk) is not a media kind of figure. He’s very, very well-thought but he makes pauses of one, two, or three minutes. It’s an endless eternity on camera and of course I would be curious to go out on a mission to Mars. However, only if I have a camera on board."
Once on board, Herzog added, "The voyage itself would be interesting enough because it would take four or five years minimum until we are reaching the planet. I'd like to not be a documentarian on Mars, I'd like to be the first poet on Mars."
Lo and Behold also features an extensive segment on self-driving cars which includes Google and Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun. Since Herzog famously avoids cellular phones in many cases, I was curious what he thought of the privacy aspect of these cars—which can be tracked by everyone from governments to advertising agencies.
"You have to think about it because it's coming at us," Herzog said. "But I have limited my access and ability to use the Internet so you cannot reach me by cell phone for example. I simply do not use one and I do not examine the world through an application on a cell phone. I examine it by reading, for example."
"Of course, if you drive with your cell phone or smartphone, even if it’s switched off, some secret service in a foreign country would know where you are. They can know where we are sitting right now, and the radius would be around 10 feet. But they couldn’t do it with me because I do not use a cell phone."
Since artificial intelligence was a repeated theme in the movie, I asked Herzog for his opinion of a recent DARPA-sponsored artificial intelligence hacking competition I attended.
"Of course we have to do it, because America is under massive gigantic permanent attacks, that are siphoning trillions of dollars of value in manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, weapons technology, you name it," Herzog said. "Every single field—trillions of dollars right now are being siphoned off. It’s understandable that the Pentagon and government are trying to come out and get a grip on it. And it's in particular one specific country."
"Yes. You know which one, and it’s not Russia. I believe Russia is much more naturally an ally to the West and to the United States than some other countries. But I am also convinced that everyone is spying on everyone else, even our friends. It didn’t come as a surprise to find out that the Obama administration was listening into the Brazilian president, the French president, German chancellor, and on and on and on. It was not a surprise."
In Lo and Behold, Herzog asks one constant question of his interview subjects: Does the Internet dream of itself?
I asked Herzog if he thought the Internet dreams of itself.
"I don’t have an answer like all the others, and all the experts," the director explained. "Nobody has a real answer. But I do believe that asking a deep question is sometimes more important than getting a straight answer. Nobody has the answer."
In terms of the answers he received, Herzog added that "Everything was a surprise. Not only artificial intelligence and the dreams of the Internet, but every single thing was a surprise. Of course it tends to be a new thing. When I look at this phenomena and talk to these people, first off, I really like them. Number two, I really have deep respect and sometimes real awe for what they have achieved. Of course they deserve it."