Into the Inferno

Into the Inferno (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

What I love about grandmaster filmmaker Werner Herzog is that each of his work is rich. I don’t mean that a lot of money is put into them. Rather, they are rich in ideas, in the sorts of people we come to meet, in the philosophical questions he asks the audience to consider, in the many corners of the globe we get a chance to see on film but would likely never visit in person. “Into the Inferno,” seemingly about volcanoes upon first glance, is no exception.

Those hoping to learn throughly about volcanoes are likely to be disappointed. In a Herzog picture, it is almost always never really about the subject but the people involved or are impacted in some way by the subject. He is a most humanist filmmaker and this is underlined by small moments that inattentive viewers are likely to miss. Notice how he allows the camera to sit still and rest on faces of various colors, shapes, ages, and culture. He employs minimal cuts, consistently allowing the persons speaking to express whatever they have to say despite stutters, pauses, and awkward silences. Because sometimes the truth is not embedded in what is spoken but in the way an answer is expressed.

Particularly fascinating—and chilling—is the visit to North Korea. There is a collaboration between North Korean scientists and scientists from the University of Cambridge to study Mount Paektu, an active volcano, and so we are given a rare chance to take a look at the enigmatic country and its people. For a while, there is an eerie feeling that the locals are actually open in allowing themselves to be filmed. They look happy, free, full of energy. After a rather impressive and emotionally engaging scene involving North Korean university students atop a mountain, Herzog pulls us back and tells us what it was we had actually seen. He then proceeds to show us a friendly tour of the monuments where people smile and take pictures.

Herzog is unafraid to go on a tangent. My favorite involves a trip to Ethiopia and there Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist whom the director met ten years prior while filming the excellent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” interacts with archeologists and they dig up remains of early humans, bones that had been in the ground for 100,000 years. I was riveted every time they hold up fossilized bone to the camera and impressed that the archeologists know exactly which piece of bone it is simply by looking at it. I was amused that they make digging through sand appear like playtime. I was reminded of that feeling I get when I go to work and none of the pipetting, mixing chemicals, and performing gel electrophoresis feels like actual work. These are people who are in love with what they do and I appreciated that the camera has managed to capture that very essence.

Of course, there are amazing shots inside mouths of volcanoes. We peer into one of three volcanoes in the world in which lava can be seen directly. We hear the heat rising and roaring, the smoke so thick and ominous. We see old footages of erupting volcanoes and the destruction of nearby villages, towns, and cities. We even get a chance to visit some of these places a few years after a volcanic eruption. We see houses almost completely buried in dirt. Herzog notes there are still curtains on the windows.

“Into the Inferno” is a highly captivating documentary, commanding the joys, ironies, horrors, curiosities, and mysteries of the best work of film fiction. It makes the viewer to want to travel the world and visit structures like churches shaped like a chicken, catacombs designed to protect from pyroclastic materials, to interact with isolated villagers and ask questions about how they interpret the afterlife. It is a film that inspires to search outside one’s bubble.

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