I love Herzog. Herzog loves volcanos. I love Herzog loving volcanos. Therefore, I should love a Herzog documentary about volcanos.
Or so the theory should go.
Unfortunately, and as a Herzog fan it pains me to say so, ‘Into The Inferno’ is slightly disappointing. A slightly disappointing Herzog documentary is still a darn sight better than most films, but he still falls short of his exceptionally high standards.
Into The Inferno sees Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer travel all around the world – Indonesia, Iceland, Ethiopia, Antarctica, and North Korea – to witness the very best in volcano action.
Herzog is an individual who, through his films, has become known for his adoration of nature, and particularly his adoration for its uncontrollable sublimity. And within nature, only really his love of jungles can rival his love for volcanos.
As far back as ‘La Soufrière’ (1977), a short film he made about an imminent explosion on a Caribbean island, it is clear that Herzog is in great admiration for the fact that volcanos are so irrepressible – that for all the developments that humanity has made over the centuries, people are still at the whim of their chaotic randomness.
His fantastic 2008 documentary, ‘Encounters At The End Of The World’ – where he met Oppenheimer for the first time – also features volcanos. And his upcoming feature ‘Salt And Fire’ (2016) also features a supervolcano. And Gael Garcia Bernal.
Some of the images that Into The Inferno captures are extraordinary. Scenes of magma and lava spurting into the air, and pyroclastic flows destroying everything in their wake. The camera gets unbelievably close. So unbelievably that I haven’t completely convinced myself that it wasn’t done with green screen.
The film is utterly sublime, in the romantic sense of the word. The soundtrack draws this sensation out further, combining opera and classical music to give – at times – an overwhelming sense of awe.
It must then be asked that how, in spite of such astonishment and wonder, the film is a slight disappointment. For me, there are two possible explanations, and they are tied to each other.
Firstly, the film spends very little time looking at volcanos. Those remarkable shots of volcanos are few and far between. The film is quite open about this as its aim. Herzog states in the voiceover that he is more interested in the mythical elements that come with volcanos – elements such as religions and cults that treat volcanos with God-like status.
So we see Herzog and Oppenheimer travel to Kenya, where they help a team looking for remnants of the earliest hominids, in the shadows of a long-extinct volcano; to Indonesia, where they discover a church in the shape of a chicken, facing towards a volcano; and to North Korea, where they meet cult-ish citizens who devote themselves to the volcano from which the Kim dynasty apparently came forth.
In many ways this interest in the people is a throwback to the aforementioned La Soufrière, where Herzog is most interested in the individuals on the island, rather than the volcano itself. In particular, Herzog was fascinated with the individuals who stayed on the island, in face of all the warnings, and stood up against the worst that nature could throw at them. It was those remarkable characters, and Herzog’s adoration of them, that made La Soufrière such an impressive piece of work.
Whilst that was one coherent whole that lasted only 30 minutes, here there is very little link between each of the various portions. Perhaps this could have been better suited to a series of episodes. That way we could also have got twice as much Herzog …
And secondly, that for a film that is not interested in the science of volcanos, it seems a strange decision to put Clive Oppenheimer – a professional volcanologist – so much to the front and centre of the film. Especially when the alternative was Herzog. In addition, rather than ask his own questions, he asks the same unexpected, perceptive questions that Herzog would otherwise be asking. Oppenheimer was certainly a likeable screen presence, but the result is a somewhat un-Herzog-ian feel to much of the film, that leaves the audience longing for Herzog himself to come out from behind the camera.
This review has focused too often on the negatives, so to stress again: Into The Inferno is an inventive, thought-provoking, and sublime documentary, that despite its flaws is certainly worth watching. Oh, and Herzog also says that volcanos “could not care less about what we are doing up here … this boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles, and vapid humans alike”. It’s worth it for that.