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Into the Inferno - a film by Werner Herzog

sgdhykThe intrepid, even daredevil, German film director Werner Herzog has long had an interest in volcanoes. In 1977, he made a documentary about the La Soufrière volcano in Guadeloupe, and in 2007, another documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica, where he filmed volcanologists at work on Mount Erebus. One of them was Clive Oppenheimer from Cambridge University, with whom Herzog struck up a rapport.

Now, inspired by Oppenheimer’s 2011 book Eruptions that Shook the World, they have collaborated to make Into the Inferno, a film directed by Herzog but focused upon Oppenheimer. It explores active volcanoes and their impact on local societies—ranging from Iceland and Ethiopia to Indonesia and Mount Paektu, on the border between China and Korea, a volcano sanctified to the memory of North Korea’s ‘great leader’ Kim Il-sung—with a mixture of churning red lava, high-tech monitoring, dubious politics and tribal religion that is variously awe-inspiring, scientific, unfamiliar and borderline hilarious.

Introducing their relationship, Herzog cuts between footage of an early conversation in Antarctica and a present-day one. Perched in cold-weather hats at the edge of the crater of Erebus, Oppenheimer confesses to Herzog that he initially feared the director would invite the volcanologists to risk their lives in descending by rope to the lava. “Instead, you were interested in what we were doing, and why we were doing it.” Herzog replies: “For me there’s no personal excitement to go down there. Out of curiosity, yes, I would love to see it from close up. But since it is too dangerous it would be silly.” Today, he tells Oppenheimer: “I am the only one in film-making who is clinically sane, taking all precautions.” Oppenheimer replies: “Absolutely. You wouldn’t still be here, if you were insane. You would have been consumed long ago by a pyroclastic current, or a gas flare, or a grizzly bear, or whatever. So it’s quite clear that you’re sane. I never doubted that for a moment on our first encounter.”

Even so, despite Oppenheimer’s engaging love of all things volcanic, an apocalyptic note is never far away. A tribal chief in Vanuatu, on the Pacific Ring of Fire, begins the film by talking about his intimacy with the lava lake that threatens their community. It concludes with the chief’s sombre reflection that “the volcano will destroy everything—everything will melt.” Despite the lava’s mesmerising beauty, “This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike,” remarks Herzog’s closing commentary, with his trademark Teutonic relish.

Reviewed by Andrew Robinson, author of Earth-Shattering Events: Earthquakes, Nations and Civilization, Thames & Hudson, 2016.

INTO THE INFERNO A film by WERNER HERZOG and CLIVE OPPENHEIMER 2016.  Directed by Werner Herzog Produced by Spring Films and Werner Herzog Film Produktion. A Netflix Production 110 minutes.