Werner Herzog’s latest 2016 documentary Into the Inferno is a fiery delight. It comes nearly in tandem with his also excellent Lo and Behold! Reveries of a Connected World, which is about the wonders and horrors of Internet culture in our growing technological age. Into the Inferno, which he filmed in collaboration with Cambridge University volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer (Werner was inspired by his book Eruptions that Shook the World), is a poetic and cinematic look at active volcanoes across the world.
This is not Herzog’s first foray into the realm of active volcanoes – in fact, his 1977 documentary La Soufrière (I wrote a review of it here) also looked at an island in the Caribbean where a volcanic eruption was evident (interestingly, however, it decided not to erupt at the very last minute). Like his new documentary, however, it wasn’t just about the erupting volcano, although they certainly play a major role – it’s also about the people who live with volcanoes, who stay behind when the volcanoes are erupting, people who come to terms with the possibility of death in their everyday life, and more. I think Herzog’s exploration of these stories, such as the romantic yet ill-fated story of the French volcanologist couple whose beautiful yet daring vision for volcanology and cinema unfortunately ended in death.
I also really enjoyed the opportunities that the documentary opened up, such as the rare look at North Korean culture, which seems tangential but works really well for the film. It sprouted as a collaborative effort between Cambridge University and North Korean volcanologists, and it is a unique opportunity to hear from these people firsthand and better understand their beliefs and philosophies. Herzog and Oppenheimer travel from Iceland to North Korea to Indonesia and beyond, and it is a fascinating journey.
Herzog’s shots are absolutely compelling, featuring lava erupting from within the bowels of the earth – strangely ambivalent in its alluring yellow-orange natural beauty yet highly dangerous at the same time. Herzog’s juxtaposition between opera and the volcanic shots works really well – depictions of the unattainable, how our lives are meaningless compared to the powers of the earth. Film works so well as a medium here, depicting the volcanoes as an artist would open a canvas to great effect, and I think it really covers all the bases. I would have loved to have seen more focus on supervolcanoes, but I guess I can’t be too picky – this is great stuff.
Like other Herzog documentaries, one of its great attractions is also the stories of the people. I was particularly drawn to one community who worshipped an American soldier who was destined to return with great gifts and resources for all the people. One of the villagers comments that one day, there will be a volcano that consumes everything and us all, despite everything we have achieved, or so we think. In addition, one of my favourite Herzog quotes comes at the end of the film when he describes the volcano in its awesome beauty:
‘It is a fire that wants to burst forth and it could not care less about what we are doing up here. This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.’
I was really drawn to this quote, our inevitable infallibility and the sheer supremacy of the volcano, forever building and churning between us in its own terms. Still, we cannot help but be drawn to these forces of power and try to make sense of what we see. Perhaps the threat of an imminent volcano will bring us all together in solidarity and we will see the best qualities that humanity and animals have to offer. I like to dream, and I like to hope. Into the Inferno is full of beautiful scenes, great stories, and it’s just about everything you could want with a documentary. It’s on Netflix and I highly recommend it.
Special thanks to Toron for a great watch!