Werner Herzog, one of the greatest film-makers of our time, turns his eye to the internet, past, present and future in a disturbing interrogation of the phenomenon of our times.
“I’ll be your candidate, one way,” declares the assiduous German. He is in this instance talking to the guy who is researching the possibilities of getting the internet onto Mars for the benefit of the intrepid travellers of the future. It’s probably the most eagerly unequivocal thing you hear the veteran director declare in voice-over throughout the entire film, as he mostly asks questions.
Yet it figures in terms of what we know about the 74-year old director and his burning obsession with rendering on to film the strange madness that drives humankind in all its works and pomps. This bold pioneer of visionary reportage would go anywhere to make a film, even Mars, if he thought it might yield a worthwhile result. Certainly he says he wants to go, and you instantly think - what about Mrs Herzog, should there be one, or what about his kids, his family? Not that these matters, of course, are any of our business.
Sounding like an urbane travel agent, and appearing to be caught off guard by Herzog’s enthusiasm, the thoughtful scientist replies hesitantly to the director's request to be invited to Mars. “Well.... ", he says, "we want to offer round trips because if people don’t like it, they can come back.”
In this instance, the director remains on planet Earth to ask questions of a multitude of people, most of whom appear to be in the USA, and most of whom appear to be extremely bright but warmly-inclined scientists working in fields relating to the internet and the world-wide web. He meets the early pioneers who got a bunch of computers talking together. Indeed he got his film's title from the fact that the first message sent was cut short by a computer crash. Someone tried to write the word `login' but the break-down meant that the operative only got as far as `Lo’. Thus the title, Lo and Behold.
Herzog wrote this unwittingly bleak and sinister documentary himself and he lures the viewer in with some charming but desultory stuff about self-driven cars. Or there's the robot football team which a research body is working on with the intention of beating the (human) FIFA champions of 2050. His interviewee in the latter segment - another of these affably grinning bright sparks with which abound throughout – tenderly admits that, yes, he loves robot Number 8. A football fan might passionately admire Lionel Messi - this guy genuinely loves the bleedin' robot.
You just know though that the director will cut deeper. Deep he goes with the Catsouras family, all of whom, mother, father and three daughters are filmed in what might be their living room. Each of them looks almost preternaturally haunted, isolated by the agony of knowing what happened to the images of their deceased sister after her death. She crashed her Porsche and was almost decapitated. Pictures went viral and some were sent anonymously to her father, one bearing the message: "Dead girl walking, woo hoo Daddy, I'm still alive.
Herzog is a tactful, decent man who, wishing to be sensitive to the privacy of the Catsouras family, will not even show a picture of the deceased girl when she was alive. "Some of the hate-mail was so unspeakably horrifying that we cannot repeat it here," says the director, once again in voice-over. As you hear those words you silently pay tribute to the instinctive ethical sense Herr Herzog has maintained through fifty years of film-making.
A cautionary film about the uncharted future for the internet - and scientists in essence know little about how that future will roll out - Lo and Behold runs at the IFI, Dublin until Thursday November 3.