There’s little on Earth that seems more perfectly suited to Werner Herzog’s fascination with the natural world, and humanity’s insignificance when silhouetted against it, than volcanoes. Majestic to behold at distance and mesmerising up close, they balance the fate of the world in their capricious maws, capable of destroying “scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike”. This is just one of the ways that Herzog tries to convey the allure of their terrible power in his new documentary about them, Into the Inferno.
Director Werner Herzog
His cinematic interest in volcanoes predates this film by 40 years. In 1976 he ventured headlong onto the island of Guadeloupe as everyone else was fleeing an imminent eruption because he had heard about a man who was refusing to evacuate; the result was his short film La Soufrière. Three decades later he met “a strange and wonderful tribe of volcanologists, some of them overcome by altitude sickness” on the crater of Mount Erebus while filming Encounters at the End of the World. Making that film, he struck up a friendship with the amiable Cambridge professor Clive Oppenheimer. Nine years later, Into the Inferno sees the pair embark on a quintessentially Herzogian expedition, Oppenheimer hoping to repair the reputation of the noble volcano in the film’s snatches between spectacular footage and the filmmaker’s exploration of the cultural belief systems that manifest around them.
Oppenheimer’s presence reduces the need for quite so much of Herzog’s inimitable voiceover, but it also provides a useful focal point to a film that might otherwise become listless. In certain moments Herzog happily lets it drift away on a tangential current. Of course, this is what makes his films so original, and is often the point at which he happens upon the unexpected characters and places that audiences forever remember. Here, the crew discovering an apparently abandoned Catholic church designed to look like a dove but instead known locally as the ‘chicken church’ is an unreal delight. A room with only a chair and a tuned-out television in it prompt one of Herzog’s more overtly silly lines of narration: “We found nobody, sat in a chair, pretending to watch to TV.” Elsewhere the tone is far more reverential, regularly cutting to the hypnotic images of molten lava and pyroclastic flow, many of them photographed by the doomed husband and wife duo Katia and Maurice Krafft.
There’s a nice moment when Oppenheimer reflects on the first day, up at McMurdo Station years earlier, when Herzog was due to go out with his group, and their fears that the mercurial director was going to abseil down into the crater for a shot. Herzog is quick to rejoin that he is “the only one in filmmaking who is not insane.” The pair work well together now, Oppenheimer standing in for Herzog on camera for most of the film. He has an affable interview style that never verges on antagonism, even when he’s pushing a tribal chieftain on the method by which his brother communes with the spirit living in the nearby volcano.
In fact, he gets a response typical of Herzog’s films: a charming and surreal story about how the fire in the volcano’s belly spat out a spark one night to light his cigarette for him. These are the gems that can be found glistening amongst the lava flow, the profundity that Herzog always uncovers in the playful, and while Into the Inferno is not his tightest work, it offers no fewer riches.