A Tale of Two Herzogs

A Tale of Two Herzogs

Milo Garner reviews Werner Herzog’s two new documentaries, Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World and Into the Inferno.

This month legendary filmmaker and maverick Werner Herzog released two new documentaries, one in cinemas and streaming online, and the other through Netflix in an exclusive agreement. The first, Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, is about the internet, while the second, Into the Inferno, concerns, at least ostensibly, volcanoes. Despite their close proximity, it is curious that Herzog has offered two very different documentaries here, not only in content but in style.

Lo and Behold is somewhat typical of Herzog’s later, more mainstream output. It places him primarily as narrator and interviewer, jumping to various talking heads and discussing a variety of topics. In style it is somewhat reminiscent of From One Second to the Next as it has less of Herzog’s typical idiosyncrasy, though it is by no means absent. There are few directors who would soundtrack a man describing the first use of the internet with Wagner’s Das Rheingold overture, but Herzog is certainly one of them. The film itself is split into ten parts, each considering an element of the internet, at least as Herzog sees it, with most leading to quite a dystopian or apocalyptic conclusion.

Being a modern Luddite who doesn’t even own a smartphone, a lot of Herzog’s questioning lies outside the typical realms of a tech documentary for better or worse. For better, he catches many of the experts he interviews off guard with his artistic view of the world – the few moments of bewildered silence suffered by the genius building the robots of the future after Herzog asked him if they could feel love are worth the entire running length alone. However it is also a limitation, as being an onlooker from the outside sometimes causes the documentary to drift. Instead of latching onto the key points of contemporary debate, Herzog is far more interested in the internet’s past as well as its distant future, with sci-fi concepts such as artificial intelligence discussed at length. Social media, on the other hand, is barely mentioned once, despite being the most popular use of the internet in the present day. Nor, ironically, what with its sister documentary being released solely on Netflix, does Herzog even mention the rise of streaming empires.

Into the Inferno is far more adventurous in every sense of the word than Lo and Behold, and this is instantly clear. Instead of jumping from businessman Elon Musk to an internet pioneer to someone allergic to wi-fi (really), in Into the Inferno, we travel from the jungles of Indonesia, to the deserts of Ethiopia, to the wastes of Iceland, and to a hidden fortress in North Korea. Herzog and volcanologist co-host Clive Oppenheimer act as globe-hopping explorers in search of volcanoes (initially at least). This is Herzog in his element: in the wild. We are reminded of this by a sort of flashback sequence to his 2007 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, wherein he explored Antarctica and actually met Clive Oppenheimer at the crater of an enormous polar volcano. Within this flashback there is another, to his 1977 film La Soufrière in which he travelled to a small island expecting the local volcano to erupt, but was constantly frustrated by its reluctance. It is possible these flashbacks were necessary to introduce newcomers to the Herzog canon, but if nothing else they certainly remind the viewer of Herzog’s adventurous nature. It makes Lo and Behold seem, quite frankly, tame.

What makes Into the Inferno feel truly Herzogian, however, is how he once again defaults to his alternate occupation as an (unofficial) anthropologist. Though he was supposedly visiting and exploring volcanoes, his ‘kino-eye’ is constantly caught by the people surrounding them. For example, leaders of two Indonesian tribes living in the vicinity of a particular volcano are interviewed. One believes that the volcano is home to the gods and the dead. The other, however, believes that a god-like American solider, John Frum, lives inside the volcano and will return one day bringing with him a golden age of American consumerism. How could Herzog resist delving deeper there? The same is true when he visits North Korea – though curious about how the volcano is revered in North Korean culture, he can’t help but be fascinated by how their unique society functions, how they live, and how they consider the reigns of their dictators. This is where being on location becomes so important, and why Into the Inferno’s spontaneity is ultimately more interesting than the closed setting in Lo and Behold.

Overall, both documentaries are worth watching and both will offer some new perspective. A point in favour of Lo and Behold is it constantly stays on topic, even if that topic is rather vague and wide. On the other end of the spectrum lies Into the Inferno, which has a specific topic yet constantly veers off into totally unrelated territory. If one were to view it with the sole intention of learning about volcanoes, they might be understandably disappointed, but for another Herzogian adventure it has everything you could want.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World: 7/10

Into the Inferno: 8/10

Featured image: Wikimedia


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