At the Academy Awards in 2012, there was a little video montage in which an interviewer asked a bunch of Hollywood celebrities the same question: “What makes a great film?” A variety of answers ranging from dull to insightful spouted forth, but the best by far came from Robert Downey Jr., who said, “I think that’s a great question to have Werner Herzog complicate.”
People may debate whether Herzog is weird or wonderful, nihilistic or humanistic, empathetic or violent, but one thing remains upon which I think we all can agree: he is not shallow. If you ask him a simple question, he will complicate it. If he makes a documentary about cave paintings, he will spend the last five minutes examining albino crocodiles mutated from nuclear radiation, because he believes these things are deeply linked, and in that time, he will convince you that they are, too. If you ask him to make a movie about volcanoes, he will. Sort of.
Into the Inferno (2016)
The Plot: Werner Herzog makes a documentary about volcanoes, spends about 90% of the movie musing on the existential conundrum of what makes us human. He and Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer explore the world’s largest, most active, and most dangerous volcanoes, travelling to Iceland, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Antarctica, and even North Korea. Oppenheimer gives us all the science we need, but Herzog is more interested in the spiritual side of things, examining how volcanoes mold the cosmogonies of the people who live near them, both now and deep into the past.
I hope this comes as no surprise to anyone, but I really, really love Werner Herzog. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about one of his movies, but his new releases are often really difficult to get a hold of. I still haven’t seen his Gertrude Bell movie. Needless to say, then, I was happy to hear that Into the Inferno would get its initial release directly on Netflix. Now, if only they could get some of his other movies… I’ve seen twenty-three of them, but IMDb lists sixty-eight directorial credits, so I have some catching up to do.
Anyway, Into the Inferno slots in perfectly with Herzog’s other documentaries, especially Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World. It’s a little less introspective and personal than Grizzly Man and The White Diamond, but only because it examines humanity at large, not individuals. Granted, one of Herzog’s strengths as a filmmaker, regardless of whether he’s making a documentary or a narrative film, is that his characters all possess a layered duality. Although individuals, with private thoughts and emotions, Herzog sees a microcosmic humanity in everyone. His movies always capture this multivalent characteristic of people, so that they are at once themselves and everybody else. Don’t worry, I’ll stop now.
Since his attitudes towards narrative and documentary movies are pretty much the same, he shoots some incredibly cinematic documentaries. First and foremost, before we delve into anything too existential, Into the Inferno is a singularly beautiful film. Herzog’s footage of active volcanoes, often presented to us in long stretches of magma flows and eruptions, is simply mesmerizing. As a practiced viewer of his films, I went into this one anticipating several single shots of lava that lasted ten minutes or so with no dialogue and probably some opera overlaid, and I was dead on. Hey, this is a guy who once ended a movie with several minutes of a camel pooping while a nearby midget laughed his heart out, so… this is nothing. I think there’s some primal instinct that compels us to gaze endlessly into fire. It is, in its most basic form, mesmerizing. So, Herzog works his hypnotic magic at times, really blowing my mind in the process.
These stretches, while they may feel long, only make up a small portion of the documentary. As I said before, Herzog is much more interested in the human stories that surround volcanoes. He joins an archaeological dig in Ethiopia that uncovers skeletal remains of the earliest human (by incredible timing, because such finds are extremely rare). He spends time with a strange commune of volcanologist who live on the rim of the active volcano in Antarctica, one of three volcanoes in the world where you can see straight to the bottom at the magma well. He reads from the ancient Icelandic codex, which incorporates volcanoes into its apocalypse narrative (unsurprisingly, considering that Iceland has one eruption every season). He examines a cargo cult in Vanuatu, which worships an American WWII pilot who crashed on the island as a kind of Christ-like figure, incorporating him into their preexisting volcanic religion. Perhaps most interesting, though, is his exploration of North Korea and the role of their Mount Paektu in establishing and supporting Kim Il-sung’s divinity within the communist system. As usual, no matter how bizarre or engaging these people get, Herzog never passes any judgment on them. He values everyone’s stories evenly as he endeavors to understand the role of volcanoes in the formation of the human psyche. It’s fascinating stuff.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that we get his voice narrating us the whole way through. With a gentle sense of humor and an existential finality matched only by a childlike wonder, his voice could narrate pretty much anything and I’d listen. Entertaining, informative, and a bit mind-blowing, Into the Inferno fits in nicely with Herzog’s oeuvre, a must-see for anyone interested in him, in volcanoes, or in human nature (of course).