One of the most disappointing objects I got to see in this year's DocLisboa line-up (even though it was a ten-year old film picked up for the representations of terrorism in cinema I Don't Throw Bombs, I Make Films sidebar), German director Lutz Dammbeck's The Net is the sort of lurid but ultimately confused would-be exposé that doesn't really know how to deal with all the material it assembled.
By connecting the writings of the infamous Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, with the history of the internet and the post-WWII desire to create a better world, the director is looking at unveiling an "alternate history" of the past half century, suggesting our technological society results from a combination of utopian and dystopian elements put into place by folk in high places. Mr. Dammbeck's approach creates a fascinatingly interlinked (hyperlinked, maybe?) view of world history as an interconnected living organism - a sort of non-stop butterfly effect that a few visionary, secretive elements may have attempted to guide.
In cheerier hands, this would be the "alternate dimension" explored in Brad Bird's utopian Tomorrowland, but in Mr. Dammbeck's hand suggests a disquietingly totalitarian result, an investigative attempt to "keep the populace under control". The problem is that the director never truly solidifies those connections, leaving them - either by default or by design - as mere thought-provoking allusions that, at their most outlandish, come across as outlaw conspiracy theories.
That The Net slips slowly into Twilight Zone or X-Files territory isn't necessarily a problem; what is, though, is that the director maintains throughout an approach of dogged documentarian searching for the truth while what he is actually doing is speculative investigation. The sense is that the film changed direction somewhere in between the filming and the editing, in an almost Herzogian way but without his determination. And the interviews shot with figures like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Unabomber victim David Gelernter or the late cybernetics pioneer Heinz von Foerster have an exploitation element involved, as if Mr. Dammbeck was hoping for a "gotcha" moment that never really arrives.
Eventually, the theory Mr. Dammbeck is trying to uphold seems to be created on the fly, and that we are watching its creation - especially since Kaczynski himself remains elusively out of frame, quoted from the correspondence he exchanged with the director but without any possible measurement of the veracity of his statements. As a result, the film amasses a wealth of intriguing information that is never explored beyond its face value, leaving the viewer in no position to judge its reliability, and with a film that is as genuinely thought-provoking as bewilderingly misguided and under-cooked.
Germany, 2003, 119 minutes
Directed and written by Lutz Dammbeck; camera, Thomas Plenert, István Imreh and James Carman; music and sound design by Jörg U. Lensing; film editor, Margot Neubert-Marić; produced by Lutz Dammbeck Filmproduktion in co-production with Südwestrundfunk and ARTE
Screened October 26th 2015, São Jorge 3, Lisbon - DocLisboa sidebar screening