INTO THE INFERNO opens with a shot of a smoking volcano and the sound of chamber music. It sets the tone for a film in which Werner Herzog sets up his subject as a god or demon to be respected and to be feared, and explores the many people around the world who see volcanoes and other natural phenomena sometimes literally as such.
Herzog’s guide is the affable Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, and their journey begins on the South Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu, where a small tribe living in the shadow of a volcano carry out rituals to appease the mountain, with whom some of the clan claim to be able to ‘speak’. The pair’s investigation takes them on to Indonesia, Ethiopia, North Korea, Iceland and finally back to Vanuatu; by the end of the film it’s clear to see that the heritage of any people that share their land with a volcano is irrevocably tied to that same volcano.
By the end of the film it’s clear to see that the heritage of any people that share their land with a volcano is irrevocably tied to that same volcano.
The film is made up mainly of interviews with volcanologists, archaeologists, and ordinary people who coexist with active volcanoes, and it’s something of a natural history lesson. Herzog discusses the catastrophic volcanic events of recent history and the individuals who played parts in those events. But Herzog never lets his metaphor of the volcano as a capricious and destructive god with the power to wipe entire countries clean off the face of the earth disappear from our minds. And it’s difficult not to share Herzog’s impression. In a clip of the French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, the raging river of lava that churns alongside them looks with the smallest jump of imagination like a huge, fantastical snake; the breathtaking footage of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the swirling neon-red magma of Erebus is enough to inspire at least a twinge of a sense of the numinous. ‘We’re chasing the magical side,’ Herzog says in his iconic accented tones.
Despite the energy and enthusiasm of the palaeontologist Tim White, the film slows considerably during the scene involving the archeological dig in the East African Rift Valley in Ethiopia. It’s interesting but it’s not great cinema, and it starts to feel like a bonus episode of Time Team; the film is far more watchable when Herzog remains ‘on message’, something he also fails to do later on, when he investigates the importance of Mount Paetku to the people of North Korea. Such is its uniqueness in our globalised world that almost anything about North Korea is interesting, but much of what Herzog discusses seems overindulgent in a film that’s already almost two hours long, and would be better placed in a separate––and no doubt fascinating––film exclusively about the hermit kingdom.
The breathtaking footage of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the swirling neon-red magma of Erebus is enough to inspire at least a twinge of a sense of the numinous.
The most powerful sequence of the film involves the footage of the Icelandic volcanic eruptions of 2010. The events themselves were relatively small, but nevertheless caused never-before-seen disruption to global air traffic and massive flooding which, when depicted by Herzog over haunting classical music, is hard not to describe as ‘Biblical’. Almost as breathtaking is a scene in which Herzog reads an excerpt from the Royal Codex, a single manuscript which ‘defines the spirit of the [Icelandic] people’, which describes a catastrophic volcanic eruption that seems to herald the end of the world. His words are accompanied by beautiful and terrifying imagery of volcanoes hurling bright orange lava into the sky. These sequences are all the more powerful because they punctuate an enquiry into the philosophical, historical and mythological associations of the world’s volcanoes which increasingly inspires a sense of awe in the viewer. I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine, in which it is the sun which takes on the role of a god or demon. Herzog’s footage of magma churning hypnotically and exploding mountains sending ash miles into the sky makes it if not easy to see then at least understandable that some people might feel humbled, in the most religious sense, by volcanoes. What’s more, the very real fact that there have been volcanic events in the past that have nearly wiped out all human life on the planet, and that there are dormant volcanoes in the world today which have even more destructive potential, is an illustration that it isn’t the most illogical thing in the world to view volcanoes with some degree of unease.
Herzog has a way of telling a story that causes the viewer to catch his interest in the subject, whether that subject is, for example, a triple murder in Texas (Into the Abyss) or the miraculous lone survivor of a plane crash (Wings of Hope). There is the unpretentious style and unhurried pace of his documentary films, which makes for a more thoughtful viewing and allows the viewer to immerse themselves fully in the atmosphere of the film, and there is Herzog’s choice of interviewee and interview questions––’Will the internet one day dream of itself?’ he asks his subjects in Lo and Behold. But more than those directorial qualities it is Herzog’s genuine curiosity which colours his films and pulls the viewer in. In the hands of a less interested director, Herzog’s subject would seem far less engrossing. The best way to sell Into the Inferno to the unconvinced, then, is to say that the theme of volcanoes has been explored countless times––but not like this. For some Herzog’s directorial wizardry will not be enough to make the subject appealing, but then, he isn’t a director who sets out to please anyone. For most, his own passion for volcanoes, communicated so effectively through his direction, will be enough at least to inspire curiosity, if not rapt attention.