Werner Herzog’s latest documentary which surveys the world’s most dangerous and active volcanoes, Into the Inferno, is unsurprisingly not about volcanoes. Despite privileged access to one-of-a-kind sites and the researchers who work on them, Herzog has little concern for info-doc subject matter. While another filmmaker might take the opportunity to discuss climate change or how unprepared we are for catastrophe, Herzog is only after one truth, the thing hidden by data, ideology and his own myth: the cosmic indifference of nature, the universe in all of its nihilistic purposelessness.
Clashes between nature and subject, and The Real and The Symbolic have been the thematic through-line of Herzog’s distinctive oeuvre: the grizzly bears and Timothy Treadwell’s perception, the jungle and Fitzcarraldo’s exotic dreams, the Amazon River and Aguirre’s doomed quest. There is a clear line between the indifferent filmic environment and the assumptions of the characters and filmmaker, who seek to own nature as property or a framed image. The production of Herzog’s work often mirrors its content, a clear parallel emerging between the characters and their creator. In that sense, the subject of art and existence is inseparable to Herzog, as both are ostensibly concerned with how to live a meaningless life in an uncaring environment. His cinema asks us to confront the hellish abyss with him, to strip away all our delusions and see the world as it is: life as a profound folly.
With volcanologist and friend Clive Oppenheimer, who is credited as co-director, Herzog visits volcanoes in Ethiopia, Iceland, Indonesia and North Korea. Into the Inferno sprawls across cultures and demonstrates how belief systems are attached to the volcano in a given region. There is something disturbingly eerie to how many of these people approach the volcano, a rift between Herzog’s point of view and their attempt to tame nature and make it apart of their simplified narratives: religious, colonial, scientific or totalitarian. In this way, Into the Inferno is similar in structure to Herzog’s recent documentaries Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Into the Abyss (2011) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which circle around their topics and use an episodic structure to, however briefly, immerse us in the lives of varying kooky, mad and downtrodden personae. For all intents and purposes, Into the Inferno is a repackaging of this obsessive vision, the same film as his other recent documentaries but fitted to a new context. What makes these films continually poignant and fascinating is less the framework through which the director views the world, but the characters that inhabit their environments, the free-spirited lunatics that the director understands and clearly has affection for. He’s drawn to those who live on the edge of the crater, who peek in and are horrified and alleviated by what they see: a world of adventure, a world of futile endeavors.
The many encounters within the film draw attention to the act of interpretation. When Herzog visits North Korea and is exposed to propagandandistic performances, a translator filters the words of a historian, a tour guide and scientists. There are no subtitles. Whether the translation is accurate is undecipherable for an English speaking audience, which is an additional layer separating the viewer from truth. These mediated conversations in North Korea parallel a sequence earlier in the film where an Indonesian native forms a deep connection with Clive and one of his PhD students as they exchange words in the indigenous man’s language. The contents of the conversation are unknown. We are forced to interpret what we see, forced to protrude the language barrier, Herzog’s own interference and the regional myths attached to these volcanoes. The view of the volcano, and everything we see for that matter, is not neutral, but rather, inextricably linked to a philosophy, religion or ideology.
The director’s gaze isn’t neutral either, for as he interrogates the representations and beliefs surrounding these enormous edifices, he also provides his own. Like almost all of Werner Herzog’s films, Into the Inferno is about Werner Herzog. Not only are his eyes and ears the senses of the camera, but he integrates his own myth into the film, once again paralleling his subjects with himself by intertextually referencing his body of work throughout the film, whether explicitly through narration or implicitly, like the opening shot which matches the first shot in Aguirre: the Wrath of God. The irony is that the director’s unflinching point of view is now a distancing joke. His meme-ification is exemplary of the very thing his films have been clawing at: the narratives and devices that deceptively shield us from life’s purposelessness. Within the molten core of the volcano the director sees the quintessence of existence, a series of random chaotic processes that, for whatever reason, culminate with extravagant, overwhelming beauty. This contradiction, the only glimmer of hope in the filmmaker’s decidedly bleak worldview, has protruded through his narrative and documentary work alike. Fact, fiction and whatever lies in between are a means to extoll this fundamental quandary: the ephemeralness of the human experience and awe that it even exists. To watch one of Herzog’s films is to enter into a state of madness, the only reasonable response to the world portrayed on the other side of the director’s camera, an extension of his own perception.