Werner Herzog is a living legend, a madman director who insists he’s “the only sane filmmaker.” The director of the eighties remake of Nosferatu and the surreal “let’s drag an entire steamship over a mountain” movie Fitzcaraldo (plus countless others) has largely turned his attention to documentary in the past twenty years. His latest explores a subject close to his fevered, compulsive mind. Into the Inferno follows Herzog and co-director and vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer as they traipse around the globe, visiting the world’s mightiest volcanoes.
Volcanoes are a perfect subject for Herzog. He’s approached them before. His 1977 documentary short La Soufrière captures the island of Guadeloupe, where a volcano is about to erupt. Everyone has fled, except for one man who doesn’t seem to care. This fascination with living in the shadow of destruction is one of many themes Herzog explores in larger fashion with Into the Inferno.
Humanity is insignificant, he observes. Our time here, our works, none of this matters. Volcanoes are the manifest indifference of nature and time. Through much of the film, people bring their own mythologies to the precariousness of their existence. Indonesian people believe the volcano to be the home of gods, people who live in the fire. Icelandic volcanoes forge new land, the soul of a new nation. A more southerly Indonesian group is a cargo cult, worshipping John Frum, a WWII US marine/deity who will deliver to them chewing gum and refrigerators, all the wonders of consumer profusion, when he returns.
Arguably more absurd is the repurposed mythology in North Korea. There the volcano Mt. Paektu was the locale of an immense eruption a thousand years ago. The deep cultural mythology surrounding the site has been commandeered by the North Korean Republic, with giant totalitarian statues around the site. A classic origin story details how Dear Leader Kim Il-Sung found inspiration at the base of the volcano to overthrow the corrupt government and found the Republic. The North Korean passage of the film is fascinating, a rare opportunity to look closely at a perfect Orwellian society, existing through the cadences of propaganda and a leadership cult transformed into state religion.
In contrast to so much religious confabulation, the film also follows several different groups of scientists, as they take great risks to delve into the mysteries that hold their fascination. The matter-of-fact way a scientist describes volcano safety protocol is coolly hilarious: always face the volcano during minor eruptions, so you can see the hardening lava bombs flung into the air, and if they’re about to crush you, step to the side. Riiiiiiight.
Sometimes the pursuit of knowledge is too reckless. Herzog looks at renowned French vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Kraft, who took tremendous risks to get as close as possible to their subjects. They gathered amazing data and film footage, but, after many years of research, they and their entire team were incinerated in 1991 at Mount Unzen in Japan. The ridge where they were filming lava flows was suddenly engulfed in a pyroclastic flow, and they were killed instantly, along with forty-one other people.
Herzog and Oppenheimer feel great reverence for the volcanoes themselves. “Crawling roaches, retarded reptiles, and vapid humans,” Herzog says, don’t matter so much. Volcanoes are just one of many ways an indifferent universe could swat us out of existence. They relate the unnerving theory that at one point 75,000 years ago, the vast eruption of the Toba volcano in Indonesia reduced the entire human population to just six hundred people. The ash that plumed and spread through the global atmosphere created a years-long volcanic winter that destroyed the livable zones of the world, killing animals and plants alike. That’s an extinction level event. Six hundred humans in the entire world, and we are all descended from them. It’s just a theory, but the genetic markers and the geographic record make it a plausible hypothesis.
Whether we dance like the Indonesian natives in the volcano’s shadow, or sift the Ethiopian ash for ancestral bones in the name of science, Herzog views either enterprise as ephemeral. Volcanoes are destruction, an Indonesian chief says, and they will destroy us all. It’s a philosophical reminder that everything is fleeting. But Herzog still finds fascination in the invention we bring to bear, the eccentric egotism of human endeavour.
Into the Inferno is both fascinating and meandering, a travelogue of destruction and different cultures’ unique responses. From the many shots of bubbling brimstone to the pinwheeling spectacle of thousands of patriotic North Koreans marching for Dear Leader, Herzog teases out tenuous connections, some clearer than others. Mostly, you get the feeling he just wants to see it all. And we’re lucky enough to tag along with him.