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Revolutionary filmmaker Werner Herzog has built a highly respectable reputation as a visionary director who takes great risks to achieve his art, producing works that change the landscape in terms of their scope and breadth of knowledge, but more so for their engaging personality, often being deeply affecting. From his efforts to film the mesmerizing Fitzcarraldo, about a man who struggles to haul a steamship over a steep hill in the Amazon to the disquieting and haunting look at a doomed man convinced he has a spiritual connection with grizzly bears, he has fascinated and captivated us with his movies. With Into The Inferno, Herzog once again makes his subject far more than what defines it, and with great humility, brings us closer to it.
Herzog, on camera, admits his interest in volcanoes began ten years earlier while filming his previous documentary about humans living in Antarctica called Encounters at the End of the World. In that film, he meets volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who along with a team of others, work in perilously freezing temperatures at life-injurious heights to study Mount Erebus, one of only three volcanoes in the world where magma is visible. He joins Herzog again to explore other significant volcanoes and in so doing, takes us all on a journey of humanity, from the jungles of Indonesia and the deserts of Africa to the mysterious hermit Kingdom of North Korea. It is a gripping, breathtaking odyssey that does more than educate, it illuminates.
Herzog, as always, knows best that what is seen through his camera far better tells the story than what we hear. He rarely speaks, doing so only to add a brief touch of explanation or personal comment on the experience he is witnessing. He keeps Oppenheimer at center stage, if one were to say there was a star, but even he is the peripheral voice of knowledge throughout most, occasionally asking some questions of those who live in the shadows of the great mountains of fire.
What we learn is how revered these volcanoes are to the people who clearly hold tenuous contract with the lands beneath their feet. Most consider the landmarks inhabited by spirits or gods, and what Herzog does well is to give these people a voice that always feels valid. These are not backward tribes of uncivilized people, but communities who have come to find a balance and respect for a natural (or otherwise) power they cannot control. It’s an attitude that both Oppenheimer and Herzog clearly share.
Not all the volcanoes we see are active. In Africa, Oppenheimer digs in the dirt of an ancient volcano’s immense influence for remnants of early man with people who spend their lives with their eyes inches from the soil, looking for clues to who we are and where we come from. It’s a humbling sequence that provides a larger sense of impact on our place upon this turbulent planet. Equally transcendent is a trip to North Korea, under strict government supervision, where a mountain that has not erupted in over a thousand years holds key to the power of the men who now rule. Along the way, we get one of the most eye-opening looks at a country so few will ever see.
Herzog is a careful practitioner of his message, aware that his celebrity alone has granted him entrance into worlds most might never know. He is a man of intense curiosity, using this to create films that allow us to witness his own learning and understanding, rarely giving greater magnification of any subject more than what satisfies the themes of the film. He is less interested in offering answers to any question the material raises but rather in exposing it to be examined for what it is. We watch minutes of roiling, violent seas of glowing lava and magma without a word to what larger meaning it could have, instead left to use to consider it as it is, for all its power and beauty. Into the Inferno is an experience that will bring you closer to what its title promises and leave you wanting to learn more.
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Stars: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, Maurice Krafft
Language: English (Primary), Multiple others