Movie Review: 'Into the Inferno'
When I was younger, I was both terrified and fascinated by three things: dinosaurs, volcanoes and quicksand. Probably in that order. I’m not sure things have changed all that much.
If anything, legendary director Werner Herzog has an uncanny knack for tapping into those things that terrify and fascinate us on a visceral level, and what he’s done with his new Netflix documentary Into the Inferno shows this on a grand scale. He takes us around the world—Vanuatu, Antarctica, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland, North Korea—to show us some of the world’s most active and explosive volcanoes, a few of which have historically been so cataclysmic in their eruptions that they nearly wiped out the entire human race.
And it would be enough simply to show us these monsters. The opening shot is an exhilarating piece of filmmaking, a helicopter flying us closer and closer to a cloud-covered mountain, eventually showing four or five small figures standing and pointing high atop the peak, before plunging over the side and forcing us to stare deep into the eye of a volcano, one of the very few in the world where the churning magma is entirely visible. And, yes, terrifying.
But also mesmerizing. As you’d expect from a volcano documentary, we’re given many, many scenes of gurgling magma and flowing lava, the exploding red and black of the inside of our planet, shown in such a way that it’s nearly impossible (as Herzog himself says) to look away, but also in a way that almost makes the rivers of fire seem sentient. They know what they’re doing, and what they’re doing is apocalyptic. (In a few scenes close to the end, I suspect Herzog added some sound effects that were not, in fact, present in the volcanoes, that make them sound like creatures crawling out of the depths of the Earth. Real or not, they are not out of place.)
Yes, it would be enough just to show us this. But this is Werner Herzog, the man who pulled a boat over a mountain in the Amazon so that he could make a movie about a man pulling a boat over a mountain in the Amazon, so we know he’s up to something much greater in purpose. He clearly loves the mystery of the volcanoes, but he’s also interested in how they are representative of the mythologies we create as people to help us understand, or to pretend to control, something that wields such massive power over us. In Vanuatu, we learn of the spirits who live in the volcanoes, who will only tell their secrets to certain members of the community. We see in North Korea the reverse, that the volcano is a reflection of the divinity of their leaders. And we even see the storytelling that must be necessary in science, as we unearth the bones of 100,000-year-old humans in Ethiopia, imagining what these people must have looked like, getting excited over the tiniest shard of humerus that might allow us to complete one more piece of the puzzle. And, perhaps strangest of all, we return to another part of Vanuatu where a small group worships a mythical United States serviceman from World War II named “John Frum,” who is expected to return at a time unknown to bestow wealth upon his followers.
All of this, as the volcanoes loom. Those who know Herzog know we’re not going to get out of this alive. Indeed, after being relatively tame in his apocalyptic vision for much of the film, especially given the subject, near the close he gives us the gruff German-accented voiceover we’ve been waiting for, the one that shows us nature cares nothing for us, or anything else:
“It is a fire that wants to burst forth, and it 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.”
As if this needed punctuating, we then return to the village chief in Vanuatu we met at the beginning of the film, a man who seemed quite charming as he talked about the importance of the volcano for his beliefs and his community. The spirits talked to his people, told them their secrets, built the world. And yet, before we cut to the earth exploding under our feet and we fade to black, he says this:
“I believe this volcano will destroy the world someday.”
Into the Inferno? | Werner Herzog | a Netflix Original Documentary | 1 hr 44 min