“Into the Inferno” - Werner Herzog (2016)

Over the course of Werner Herzog’s prolific fifty-year career in filmmaking, he has shown himself to be uniquely talented in both the theatrical and documentary arenas.  In both of these genres, he has been extraordinarily creative, and he has consistently produced narrative foci with respect to both of these forms that somehow manage to convey his deeply felt existential perspective. 

In some ways Herzog’s documentary films are perhaps the more remarkable, because many  people would ordinarily expect documentary films to be relatively objective presentations of reality and therefore outside the scope of emotive, personal injections from the filmmaker.  But as I have remarked in other essays, documentary films exist across a wide spectrum, from full “Objectivism” at one end to full “Interactionism” at the other end [1,2,3,4].  And Herzog’s films lie at the Interactionism end of this spectrum [5]:
“Herzog is so much on the Interactionist side of the ledger that his documentary films not only include his personal perspective, but seem primarily to be his own personal essays about the world – he, himself, is an implicit focus of the film, and the “reality” depicted is self-consciously Herzog’s own reality.” 
And Herzog’s recent Into the Inferno (2016) is another representative example of this approach.  This is a film about volcanoes, and as he often seems to do, Herzog has traveled around the world assembling visual footage and then assembled it all into a fascinating narrative.  Volcanoes, perhaps because they symbolize for him Nature’s unfathomable wrath, have always been a fascination for Herzog, and he has focused his lens on them in several productions, going back all the way to his La Soufrière (1977), a short documentary about the La Grande Soufrière volcano in Guadeloupe in the Gulf of Mexico.

Indeed Herzog’s pessimism about the nihilistic nature of the natural world is a theme that runs throughout his oeuvre.  Consider these representative past opinions expressed [6,7]:
“I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.”
“There is a harmony [in nature] . . . it is a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
Of course, Herzog doesn’t focus exclusively on his own obsessions, and here in Into the Inferno, there is also coverage of vulcanology, which is mostly provided by volcanologist  Clive Oppenheimer, who is frequently shown giving his account of the various volcanoes that Herzog and his crew visit.  In fact we might say that Oppenheimer provides a more down-to-earth Objectivist perspective that counterbalances Herzog’s.  And we might also assume that some aspects of this film were inspired by Oppenheimer’s book on volcanoes, Eruptions that Shook the World (2011) [8].  Herzog had earlier met Oppenheimer when he filmed a volcano sequence and some volcanologists on Mount Erebus in Antarctica in connection with his documentary film Encounters at the End of the World (2007).

But apart from looking at volcanoes as wondrous, and often disastrous, natural phenomena, Herzog is interested in the various ways volcanoes have affected the belief systems of human cultures living in their vicinities.  So we pass back and forth in this film between the objective phenomena side and the underlying human belief side with respect to these terrifying events.  And as we proceed, Into the Inferno’s coverage of all this material is artfully presented in six distinct sections.

1.  Introduction
The film begins on Ambryn Island, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, where we are introduced to very primitive natives who have strong religious beliefs about volcanoes.  Herzog also introduces the viewer to general volcanology, Clive Oppenheimer, and the term ‘pyroclastic flow’, which refers to a fast-moving current of hot gas and lava that moves off from a volcanic eruption.  In this context reference is made to Katia and Maurice Krafft, two enthusiastic and pioneering French volcanologists who loved to photograph volcanic eruptions up close, but who were killed on one of these occasions in 1991 by an overpowering pyroclastic flow.

2.  Indonesia 

The scene now shifts to Indonesia, home of the greatest number of active volcanoes in the world.  There at Lake Toba, they visit the Babadun Observatory, which is devoted to sophisticated monitoring of volcanic activity in the area.  They also learn about a number of native beliefs and rituals, some of which are concerned with making ritual offerings in order to appease angry sea gods.  These rituals and monuments are not just of ancient origin – Herzog and his crew visit a bizarre and very large Catholic church in the shape of a nesting bird that is still under construction.

Again the volcano is a symbol of divine anger towards humanity.  In this regard Herzog observes,
“Of all the volcanoes in Indonesia, there is no single one that is not connected to a belief system”.
3.  Ethiopia
In Africa, an area that has always fascinated Herzog, they visit the Afar Region, which is a unique geological area that is 300 feet below sea level and is lined with volcanoes.  This is also the hottest place on the planet.  But here the focus is on anthropology, since it is believed that the first homo sapiens lived here some 100,000 years ago.  Oppenheimer spends some time talking to University of California, Berkeley, Professor Tim White, who is an enthusiastic on-site investigator of this topic.

4.  Iceland
In Iceland, the total landmass of which is volcanic, they visit the Westland Islands.  There they discuss the famous Laki eruption of 1783.  The wide extent of this eruption and the eight-month period over which the eruption lasted had extensive worldwide impact on the climate and make this one of the most important volcanic eruptions in human history.

5.  North Korea
The most interesting part of the film for me, though, was the segment in North Korea.  There Herzog goes to see Mount Paektu on the Chinese border.  This mountain, which has a history of volcanic activity, has been adopted by the North Korean government as a symbol of power and dominance, and its image is extensively employed in government propaganda.  There on the mountain Herzog shows a group of uniform-clad students looking over the crater’s edge and robotically praising in unison the mountain’s unconquerable power. 

Herzog offers little explicit commentary here, and he pretty much lets the government spokesmen (who have presumably been assigned to him) speak for themselves.  But their robotic praise of government propaganda platitudes attest to the government’s despotic control of all social discussion.  In North Korea, there are no international phone lines or public electronic communication media connected with the outside world.  And there are no newsstands and no advertising – only public postings of government announcements.  Herzog comments:
“But in all this display of the masses, I find an underlying emptiness and solitude.”
6.  Vanuatu (again)
We finally return to Vanuatu and visit Mount Yasur on Tanna Island.  There the primitive natives have established a new cargo-cult god, who they fervently believe was created by a volcano and who protects the local people from Nature’s angry vicissitudes.  This god is a mythical American GI, named John Frum, who is believed to have descended from the clouds to their island.  Access to and information about the god Frum is possessively controlled by the secretive local chieftain, Isaac.

In the end we come back to the local clan-head of the primitive tribe who had been interviewed at the beginning of the film.  He relates how terrified he was when he once looked down at a lava lake and  wondered if it would one day sweep over all of the natural world.  In fact, he concludes morosely, he thinks in the future that all the world’s volcanoes will collectively erupt together and destroy everything.

These parting words reflect Herzog’s generally pessimistic view about nature – that it is a world dominated by brute power and destructiveness and that it holds no quarter for the wishes and aspirations of any living things.  And this somber message is enhanced by Herzog’s measured and reflective articulation of it in voiceover.

This irresistible potency for annihilation is apparently what inspires and fuels the drive of the despotic North Korean government, and that particular segment of the film which explores their fascination for such a nihilistic metaphor was particularly compelling.

In general, we might observe that the Herzog side of Into the Inferno’s narrative provides a  somewhat disturbing cataloguing of the many different ways that a mysterious and destructive natural phenomenon, the volcano, has been used as a cultural instrument.  And interestingly,  this instrument is used to further various social aims in human societies that are unrelated to the phenomenon evoked.

Nevertheless, there is beauty and wonder in Into the Inferno, too, and this is partly embodied by the enthusiastic volcanologists and other scientists who strive to learn more about the natural world and man’s origins in it.  And in addition, there is also the fascinating imagery of the lava flows and eruptions, themselves.  These have a haunting effect on the viewer which lingers in the mind long afterwards.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Interactionism”, (label), The Film Sufi.      
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Where to Invade Next’ - Michael Moore (2015)”, The Film Sufi, (19 August 2019).
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘SiCKO’ - Michael Moore (2007)“, The Film Sufi, (10 February 2010).
  4. The Film Sufi, “‘Avatar’ - James Cameron (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (16 May 2010).
  5. The Film Sufi, “‘Lessons of Darkness’ (1992)”, The Film Sufi, (30 May 2010).
  6. Werner Herzog, “24 Wonderfully Bonkers Werner Herzog Quotes”, (Compiled by Nico Lang), Thought Catalog, (24 April 2013).   
  7. from Les Blank, Burden of Dreams (1982), which is about the shooting of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982).
  8. Clive Oppenheimer, Eruptions that Shook the World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2011).

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