The inquisitive mind of Werner Herzog takes him to places other filmmakers dare wouldn’t venture. Nearly a decade ago, the ponderous German filmmaker traveled to Antarctica for his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, which saw him explore the colony of scientists studying the frozen continent. At the summit of one of Antarctica’s volcanoes, Herzog met volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and the two quickly formed a friendship. That friendship has made its way into a new documentary from Herzog, Into the Inferno. Not only does Herzog examine the life of those who live under the constant threat of a devastating eruption, he also examines how these natural wonders shape the systems of belief for these people. Into the Inferno is a magnificent piece of documentary filmmaking, one that is constantly going into unexpected places as Herzog and Oppenheimer traverse the globe.
With the operatic music swelling and the camera lingering on the images of the molten lava flowing, it’s obvious that Herzog is entranced with the majesty of the volcano, and in awe of its wholly destructive power. The close up images of the lava is mesmerizing, and Herzog know just how long to let the visual occupy the screen before moving on. Among one of the places that Herzog and Oppenheimer visit are a village in the pacific, nestled just under a massive active volcano that can ruin the village as it has done in the recent pass. Therein lies the theme that will emerge from Into the Inferno, because these people have crafted their religious beliefs around the volcano. In other lands that Herzog and Oppenheimer visit, people have crafted systems of belief around their respective volcanoes – be it the ancient Icelandic text of the Codex or the manner with which the oppressive North Korean regime co-opted the mythical story of Mount Paektu to suit their needs.
But Into the Inferno doesn’t just stop with examining how volcanoes shape systems of belief, it also explores how they’ve shaped the topography and the role they played in the dawn of man. Oppenheimer and Herzog find themselves in Ethiopia with a brash professor from U.C. Berkeley, who along with Oppenheimer sift through the dust searching for the bones of early man. Within these scenes are the toils and thrills of scientific exploration, as they are quite lucky in discovering many bone fragments of ancient man in the dusty plains of Ethiopia.
Herzog even brings a personal sense to Into the Inferno, with the project starting from his friendship with Oppenheimer. The legendary filmmaker recalls his previous encounters with a volcano, presenting footage from the 1976 eruption at La Soufrière with a local man napping alongside a cat in the evacuated area, seemingly unconcerned with the impending volcanic eruption. Presented in archival footage is the work of Katia and Maurice Krafft, the French volcanologists whose filmed their incredibly close encounters with volcanoes. Herzog presents their stunning footage as he narrates their tragic story, both being killed in the 1991 eruption of Mount Unzen.
The most amazing thing about Into the Inferno is when Herzog and Oppenheimer travel to North Korea to examine the myth behind Mount Paektu, which legend says is where all Korean people come from. There’s a collaborative effort between North Korean volcanologists and volcanologist from around the world to monitor the seismic activity there, which is rare considering the reclusive nature of DPRK. What’s most fascinating is the manner with which Kim Il-sung, the first North Korean dictator, used the myth of the volcano and repurposed it for his nation’s vast propaganda efforts. The nation features murals of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un on that sacred land. Of course, Herzog and Oppenheimer know that all they’re being presented is a propaganda effort, and their caution makes for some fascinating bits of filmmaking. I’d happily watch an entire film on Herzog’s travels in the Hermit Kingdom.
Another odd belief system to spring from a volcano is the village that believes that an American soldier named John Frum to be their Jesus-like savior that will return, bestowing the people with all the modern amenities. They proudly fly an American flag in the hopes that Frum will feel welcomed by the stars and stripes when he makes his prophesized return. It’s an amazing belief system that is pretty funny, but also extremely fascinating example of how a religion might just pop up from anywhere.
Along with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, 2016 has shaped up to be a year of excellent documentaries from Werner Herzog. The always curious filmmaker is fearless in examinations of his subject, be they natural or man-made. Into the Inferno isn’t a film that lectures, it’s a film of discovery and you feel that thrill and wonder watching it unfold as if you were standing by the director and the volcanologist. “I am the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane,” Herzog says at one point. His methods may be a bit unconventional, but when he keep churning out brilliant, thought-provoking pieces of cinema like Into the Inferno, perhaps Herzog is the only sane person on this madhouse of a planet.
Into the Inferno
A stunning piece of documentary filmmaking from Werner Herzog, Into the Inferno examines the science of volcanoes with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, but also examines the systems of belief that emerge from the shadows of these natural wonders.