Into The Inferno
I’ve never seen a Werner Herzog film.
Phew. There, I said it. I was worried it would be harder to admit than that, but yes, the oft acclaimed, occasionally criticised, but always notable documentarian and film-maker is one that I, unconsciously, have never actually encountered, aside from the parodies. I know all about Herzog’s style and the cinematography methods that he frequently employs, but it is only now that I actually took a look myself, largely because of the ease with which I was able to do so. Netflix provided the medium, but it was the geological movements of the Earth that provided the subject, as Herzog took a look at volcanoes and their effect on human life, politics and belief.
Into The Inferno starts well enough, with a fairly spectacular use of drone cinematography on the slopes of Mount Erebus, one of only three active volcanoes in the world where the magma bursting from the interior of the planet is actually safely visible (relatively speaking). The camera slowly pans up the slopes of the mountain, over the film-maker and his party, before settling over the roiling, bubbling mass of molten rock, as hypnotising as a (well-named) lava lamp, and all the more for the primal energy it seems to represent: a theme that Herzog will hit on again again in the following 105 minutes. But from this impressive opening visual nothing of major significance comes: the remainder of Into The Inferno is more of a dormant wonder than an active explosion.
It is little more than volcano porn, an effort to use drones and HD cameras to their utmost in capturing the hypnotic power of what comes out of volcanoes, be it pyroclastic flows or the lava bombs that Herzog and his crew are amusingly warned against early on (the key, apparently, is not to run away, but to track the bomb’s trajectory and just step aside before it hits you). The oft bombastic music magnifies the effect, Herzog indulging his Wagnerian sensibilities.
But whenever Into The Inferno turns from the visual and tries to actually teach us something about the subject, it errs rather seriously. Herzog just doesn’t have the material to fill the void of running time he’s presented with, and instead embarks on something that’s a sort of Greatest Hits for his own work crossed with some shallow philosophy and unimpressive socio-political observations.
Herzog references his own work throughout, most notably Encounters At The End Of The World, where he met his Into The Inferno companion Clive Oppenheimer, and his even earlier work La Soufriere, where he famously travelled to a mostly abandoned Caribbean island shortly before an eruption, to meet the eccentric people who stayed behind. There’s a wistfulness about some of these interludes, as if the director was wishing he was still back in those adventures.
Because there is very little to attract notice here. Herzog and Oppenheimer jump from volcanic location to volcanic location – small Pacific islands, Indonesia, Iceland and North Korea – and try to find something interesting to talk about in relation to every one, but it is slim pickings. You have the chicken church in Indonesia, meant to look like a dove, and a truly excruciating sequence involving the hunt for ancient human bones that goes on way, way too long, the director’s interest holding fast long after his audiences will have waned. The freedom of Netflix, where editing does not appear to have been a major concern, has backfired somewhat in this case. The notable ego of Herzog is also on full display, most obviously in one moment where he declares that “I am the only one in filmmaking that is clinically sane”.
We should, perhaps, expect little less from a film that wades into the shallow waters of boiler plate existentialism in the manner that Into The Inferno does. That sounds pretty scathing, but I can only roll my eyes at Herzog’s efforts to turn the power of the Earth’s core into some kind of conscious monster, liable to gobble us all up without a thought. It’s a truly tired thing, to try and shake humanity loose of such pesky things as inter-national conflict and oppression by asking us to consider the untapped vastness of that which lays beneath our feet, and which could so easily devastate the planet, like in the theorised Toba eruption that gets a mention. But give me a break with this stuff, seriously: it’s like listening to a first year philosophy study wax lyrical about Plato, Satre or Russell.
Where Into The Inferno actually works is in the all too brief segments where Herzog moves beyond his ultimately flat musings and just lets the camera speak for itself, most notably in his visit to North Korea’s Mount Paektu, where we get a glimpse at how the DPRK intermeshes geological features with its nationalist myth-making. Dear leader and company play up the mountain’s legendary connections to the birth of the Korean people by telling a fantastical tale of Kim Il-sung leading the revolutionary struggle against the Japanese from a cabin on the slopes, a story vividly rendered in song, painting and spectacular displays of “human pixels” in those coordinated stadium art pieces. Here is the bizarre and the saddening: a military parade appreciating the mountain that turns out to be students, citizens diligently reading the official government publication – the only news media allowed – and utterly brainwashed military personnel gleefully explaining yet another gigantic monument to the DPRK’s fanaticism. Like Alvaro Longoria’s The Propaganda Game, Into The Inferno exposes North Korean hypocrisy simply by turning on the camera and allowing the DPRK just enough rope to hang themselves with.
But that’s only a regrettably short section right at the conclusion of Into The Inferno: Herzog is soon ending his journey back where he started, listening to an old Pacific islander predict volcanoes washing us all away in a sea of red hot divine retribution. There’s a very good 30 minutes or so in here, if you look at just the drone photography and the sections focusing on the DPRK, but nearly everything else makes Into The Inferno amount to a bloated, runaway production where the worse instincts of its head man could not be contained. Not the best introduction to Herzog. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).