Under the Volcano: Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno

intotheinfernoInto the Inferno
Directed by Werner Herzog
Opens October 28 in theaters and on Netflix

Despite sustaining a unique quasi-celebrity status among the elder statesmen of European art cinema, Werner Herzog currently appears to be commanding diminishing attention for his actual output: his last two fiction films (Queen of the Desert and Salt and Fire) still lack US distribution, and his most recent documentaries, while critically lauded, haven’t achieved the same level of box office success or word-of-mouth intrigue as those from roughly five to ten years ago (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Perhaps we’ve begun to take the Bavarian filmmaker-as-adventurer for granted? That would be a shame since Herzog continues to make great films, especially the kind of informative yet mysterious documentaries with which his name is synonymous.

Case in point is Into the Inferno, a documentary about volcanoes that branches off from earlier Herzogian takes on similar subjects, La Soufrière (1977) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007). The latter film more generally investigated scientific explorers in/of Antarctica, where Herzog met Clive Oppenheimer, a British volcanologist who serves as Inferno’s on-screen guide and interviewer. Gentle and wide-eyed, Oppenheimer shares Herzog’s ceaseless awe of nature and unflagging fascination with the extremes of human existence. The two also share an interest in science far beyond dry data. As Herzog puts it in one of his inimitable voiceovers, “Obviously, there was a scientific side to our journey. But what we were really chasing was the magical side—the demons, the new gods. This was the itinerary we set for ourselves, no matter how strange things might eventually get.”

Strange as things get in Inferno, they also become wonderfully mystical. Setting the tone is a majestic opening aerial shot in which the camera glides toward a volcano and then peers down on the bright red magma violently bubbling and shooting forth like stew in a witch’s cauldron. Herzog then takes us to Ambrym in the Vanuatu Archipelago, where tribal chief Mael Moses describes religious confrontations (indeed, conversations) with the volcano that intermittently threatens his island village. The geographical deity is a source of fear and reverence for the villagers, who practice volcano-oriented rituals that are nonetheless slowly vanishing from their culture.

A detour of footage from Encounters and La Soufriere follows in order to explain the genesis of Inferno, and then an excursion to Indonesia’s Lake Toba, site of the world’s largest supervolcano and the source of an eruption from 75,000 years ago that created a global winter and a bottleneck in human population growth. Herzog visited Toba just as an unforeseen (though much smaller) eruption caused new chaos, and the best sections of Inferno demonstrate how the destructive force of volcanoes goes hand in hand with their hellish beauty, as blooming walls of smoke, snaking streams of lava, and tumultuous pools of magma fill the frame during several lyrical montage sequences.

The majority of Inferno, however, is devoted to the civilizations that have grown from, and the rites that have developed around, volcanoes: a Jakartan procession symbolically celebrating the consummation of ocean and volcano; an archeological site in Ethopia’s Afar region, where an animated UC Berkeley professor and crew mine volcano-produced dust for bone fragments of ancient human ancestors who were attracted to the useful obsidian produced by nearby Erta Ale volcano; and Iceland, where epic eruptions go back, perhaps, to the time of the Codex Regius and its description of the apocalyptic overturning of landscape and sky. Herzog also received permission to film in North Korea—the most hermetic country in the world—in order to document Mount Paektu, a site of national reverence for serving as the launching pad for the Korean military resistance against Japanese forces and Kim Il-sung’s emergence as “Eternal President” of the DPRK. Here Herzog meditates on the sad inability of North Koreans to express feelings for Paektu outside of the mechanical collectivism and leader worship with which they’ve been indoctrinated. Bizarre stadium-sized exercises in spectacular propaganda (featuring “human pixels” that form images of Paektu) provide visual confirmation of the DPRK’s perversion of the mythology that stems from man’s deep-rooted veneration of natural splendor.

Other incredible discoveries await viewers of Into the Inferno (the last stopover is perhaps the strangest, and shouldn’t be spoiled), who will be rewarded by typical Herzogian marks of excellence: stunning cinematography, spine-tingling music selections, and illuminating and poetic narration. Into the Inferno could be described as “par for the course” if that phrase wasn’t pejorative: the film is yet another triumph from Herzog, whose catalogue remains as ineffable as it is wide-ranging.

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