Herzog grins as he takes a seat in a conference room at UCLA, which has been set up for an event later this evening. His eyes droop, but his skin is remarkably smooth, like the surface of a slightly underinflated balloon. And then there’s that voice—silky, portentous—you can imagine it coming out of a GPS system giving driving directions to Valhalla. “I like to look back at the evolution of modern human beings,” he says of his interest in the Internet. “Using fire or electricity was an enormous step for civilization, and this is one of those. And I think the poet must not avert his eyes.”
Lo and Behold is a strange film, and the strangest detail may be the fact that it is, at heart, sponsored content. Its origin goes back to late 2014 when Jim McNiel, newly installed as chief marketing officer of an Internet security and assurance firm called NetScout, was seeking a high-profile way to promote his company’s new brand positioning: Guardians of the Connected World. McNiel hired an ad agency, which pointed him to a public safety campaign Herzog had recently shot for ATT called “From One Second to the Next.” It illustrated the dangers of texting and driving in a series of almost unbearable interviews with victims and perpetrators of car crashes. The 35-minute film became a huge success, racking up more than 3 million views on ATT’s YouTube page. So McNiel got in touch, and the two started talking: Perhaps Herzog could shoot a series of online shorts for NetScout, demonstrating how much we depend on the Internet and the catastrophes its destruction—or even its interruption—might unleash?
This, it turns out, was an apt pitch for Herzog, who has described civilization as a thin layer of ice atop a roiling, chaotic ocean. When McNiel told Herzog about a February 2015 service interruption in Arizona that crippled everything from gas pumps to ATM machines, the director saw the cinematic possibilities. “I’ve seen it in New York with Hurricane Sandy,” Herzog says. “My wife was there, and she says within two days people became like zombies that cannot connect with their cell phones because the towers are down. And they cannot even use a toilet. Tens of thousands of people roaming the streets in a daze in search of a toilet.” (Presumably this is that non-“accountant’s truth” Herzog talks about.)
Almost immediately, the project began taking on grander proportions and treading into murky philosophical waters. One of Herzog’s first interviews was with Ted Nelson, a technology pioneer who coined the term hypertext in the 1960s, about his unrealized, vaguely spiritual vision for what the Internet should have become. Speaking with him on his houseboat, Herzog realized that the interview could only be understood as part of a larger, organic story—about the birth of the Internet and the ways it threatens to transform humanity. A few weeks later, he went back to NetScout and told McNiel that, for a modest budget increase, he wanted to make a feature film.
McNiel, a Herzog fan since Fitzcarraldo, says that he was personally delighted by the idea. But NetScout’s overall response was … wary. The company’s executives had thought they were making a series of shareable videos celebrating the Internet and, at least implicitly, the company’s efforts to protect it. Now Herzog wanted to make a 90-minute film that would have to be shopped around to distributors, festivals, and streaming services and would only flash NetScout’s name briefly, twice. Where was the ROI on that? How was it going to help the company sell application and network performance-management products?
“It was a big ask,” says McNiel, who says he can’t think of another corporation that has sponsored a feature documentary that wasn’t a commercial. “But I am confident that the film stands on its own and will make people think, and if they can associate that with our company, that will be positive.” The company gave Herzog a green light.