That the movie is called Into the Inferno, and the poster shows a standing figure (whom we might presume to be Werner Herzog himself) in a heat-resistant suit, it’s natural to wonder if the German director, so often caricatured as being on the verge of madness, might actually be planning to dive into a volcano.
Pardon the obvious pun, but you should infer no such thing. Rather early in this new documentary, in fact, Herzog’s collaborator and volcano expert Clive Oppenheimer specifically lauds Herzog’s sanity in taking all safety precautions and staying back from the serious danger zones. Herzog’s uniquely mannered German accent attempting posh English has been fodder for all sorts of memes and YouTube skits (not to mention Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull voice), but just because he talks like a James Bond villain doesn’t mean he thinks or behaves like one. Newcomers to the director’s work may find themselves distracted in the beginning as they laugh at his narration, but you get past that pretty quickly. It’s pretty easy to stop fixating on a voice when fire is coming out of the bowels of the earth.
While there are numerous montages of flowing lava, which are inherently beautiful and transfixing, and plentiful time-lapse shots of steam clouds releasing, the focus of the film is less a scientific look at volcanoes (there’s a little of that, but it mostly equates to Herzog being impressed with the heavy equipment scientists carry uphill) than a general look at the significance of the volcano to the surrounding area. Off the coast of Australia he encounters volcano whisperers who claim to speak to the spirits inside; in Ethiopia, he finds archeologists discovering bone fragments from the earliest humans; in Iceland, constant eruptions and eternal disaster-preparedness; and in Vanuatu, an entire religion that has sprung up around an American World War II G.I. named John Frum, whom they believe will rise again. (It’s not hard to imagine George Miller drawing from this for the “Captain Walker” storyline in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.)
Oh yeah, and he also visits a Catholic church shaped like a chicken. Not to be confused with the Church’s Chicken chain over here.
At times, Herzog seems to be creating a documentary cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s. Encounters at the End of the World took him to Mt. Erebus, the Antarctic volcano where he met Oppenheimer, which led to Into the Inferno. Late in this film, he goes to North Korea to visit Mt. Paektu, which is tied into the official state legends of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. It’s no stretch to imagine a North Korea movie might be next for Herzog. And let’s face it—you’d watch that. Herzog appears to have gained access by taking everyone at face value when he meets them, and only after he’s home safely does he superimpose his particular narration to the soundtrack which explains what he actually thinks of it all. Even as he bemoans the superficiality of state-allowed responses, he does seem to appreciate the nation’s skill at basically putting on a show 24-7. For a filmmaker as adept at fiction as he is at documentary, these particular blurred lines must be irresistible.
To belabor the cinematic universe metaphor some more, the overall sense is a bit like one of an all-star team-up, as any one of these volcanoes and the culture surrounding it could have sustained an entire solo feature. What we have here is a bit more of an appetizer sampler, albeit one where we know each item on the plate will have an awesomely oozey, fiery filling.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the L.A. Film Critics Association, and is hungry for burritos now. Tweet him and tell him what kind to get.