Into The Inferno

MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2016
Genre: Documentary, Spiritual Director: Werner Herzog

It’s difficult to discern whether this is a documentary about volcanoes which also explores human nature and spirituality or vice versa. That is, this is a film about the history of humanity and religion, and it also happens to have incredible footage of hot lava exploding from the ground. With a Werner Herzog film, it almost doesn’t matter whether this is a philosophical treatise about the human condition and our propensity towards worship and the transcendent, or whether this is just a bunch of amazing shots of natural phenomena many people would never see otherwise. It’s Herzog, so it’s inherently both/and.

With Into the Inferno–a fairly overt hat tip to Dante in that title–Herzog traverses the globe with his newfound friend and volcanologist, Clive Oppenheimer. They focus on the three active volcanoes in which the earth’s crust has been opened, and one can see straight into the glowing redness of the liquid magma, a glimpse into the earth’s interior. The vibrant red-and-orange liquid/solid is entrancing; it makes sense why people connect volcanoes with spiritual beliefs. Along the way, Herzog and Oppenheimer converse with various people, asking about their experiences and feelings regarding volcanoes.

The film follows a number of tangential rabbit trails, some of which are more interesting than others. An over-long scene in Ethiopia with a paleontologist who is looking for humanoid bone fragments in the desert has little direct connection with the subject at hand (volcanoes), but one can see why Herzog devotes so much time and energy to this–the paleontologist is just so passionate about his research, to the point of social peculiarity. Basically, the guy is so fired up about bones, it’s weird. But passion-in-excess is a characteristic shared by both Herzog and Oppenheimer; they’ve found a kindred spirit, of sorts.

Much more interesting is Herzog’s journey into North Korea, where a volcano serves as a key aspect in the mythology of their political leadership. Seeing North Korea on camera, with Herzog having conversations with various people, it feels like viewing avant-garde performance art, as if the entire nation is constantly on a stage for an invisible audience. There’s something eerie about the entire sequence, and I found it simply fascinating, if also quite sad. There is genuine worship of the North Korean government and leaders, almost of cultic quality. This has a strong parallel to the John Frum cult of Vanuatu, a group which believes an American paratrooper from WWII lives within the volcano, and who will return to bring the people American “cargo,” i.e. candy and gifts and Western wealth.

Into the Inferno is mid-level Herzog, not quite on par with his excellent Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but also more unique than typical nature documentaries in its philosophical and religious explorations. Herzog is a character, and there’s a near self-parody here in his narration and conversations. In one scene, Oppenheimer and Herzog matter-of-factly discuss whether or not Herzog could be considered insane, ultimately deciding that he likely isn’t. It’s this sort of conversation which makes a Herzog film a Herzog film–the filmmaker, like the volcanoes he encounters, is a fiery, captivating mass of mystery and provocation. You just can’t look away.

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