Volcano Lovers

Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 104 minutes.

WERNER HERZOG’S INTO THE INFERNO opens with what might be the most amazing drone shot in the short history of drone-use in motion pictures. We seem to be gliding up the side of a large mountain—up, up, past the tiny figures of a camera crew hovering near the crest—and then, without hesitation, floating over the top to look down into a crater with red-hot churning magma. A nearly invisible jump cut brings us closer to the molten mass, now filling the entire screen, and another cut puts us deeper into the pit, the drone camera swooping amid exploding fires. Be thankful that Herzog did not avail himself of 3-D.

While shooting his 2007 Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog met volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, author of Eruptions that Shook the World, on the slopes of Antarctica’s Mount Erebus. Clips from Encounters, inserted as backstory for this new volcano doc, illustrate that meeting and how unsettling it is to see fire beneath a glacier. Testifying to Herzog’s long-standing fascination with people living on the edge of natural disasters is the unforgettable image, from his 1977 short La Soufrière, of an elderly man lying on the ground on the slope of a volcano, his black-and-white cat curled up comfortably at his side. Herzog had gone to Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, after seventy thousand inhabitants fled the island, after being told that La Soufrière was about to erupt. He found three residents who had stayed behind, the most memorable being the man with the cat, who wasn’t happy that Herzog’s camera had intruded on his solitude.

The credits for Into the Inferno read “A film by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, written, edited, and directed by Werner Herzog.” Basically, the two men traveled to some of the world’s most active and/or historically most devastating volcanos, beginning and ending in Vanuatu, an island archipelago in the South Pacific, a thousand miles off the coast of Australia. In between, they hit Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland, and, most surprisingly, North Korea. Besides extraordinary images of volcanic landscapes, the film is, thanks to Oppenheimer’s skill as an interviewer, a work of comparative anthropology. Herzog’s voice-over and his choice of music—heavy on the sacred and the Wagnerian—dominate, but Oppenheimer’s analytic approach grounds the director’s romanticism. Unlike Herzog, whose focus is the individual, Oppenheimer is interested in social structures, the belief systems and myths that provide stability—or the illusion thereof—to societies that live with the memory and the anticipation of nature at its most cataclysmic.

Thanks to an ongoing scientific collaboration between volcanologists at Cambridge University and in North Korea, Herzog was able to film at Mount Paektu on the border between China and the DPRK. Inactive for eleven hundred years, Mount Paeku is the mythic birthplace of the Korean people five-thousand years ago. This foundational myth was co-opted by Kim Il-sung, who claimed to have led the revolutionary battle against the Japanese occupiers seventy years ago from a log cabin on the slope of the sacred mountain. The lake that has formed in the huge crater is too peaceful to be of interest, but Herzog finds both pathos and horror in the hysterically fervent faces and mechanical movements of those for whom ideology is a religion. The sacred log cabin is depicted in absurdly bucolic mosaics and as the central image in one of the DPRK’s emblematic stadium spectacles of lock-step dancing and banner-waving, where metamorphosing backdrops are created by thousands of “extras” flipping life-size colored cards in sync. Herzog calls them “human pixels.” The Korean section is overlong, making the film ungainly, but it’s also too short to show us much we haven’t seen before. Herzog’s insightful commentary, however, is tantalizing enough to make one hope that he can con his way back to Mount Paektu and beyond.

Into the Inferno is currently playing in select theaters and on Netflix, which has also made available a group of earlier Herzog documentaries including Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).