Into the Inferno (12A, 107 mins, ★★★★)
Of the many subjects Werner Herzog has confronted throughout his long and extraordinary career, the natural world is one he has returned to again and again. Within this vast canvas, the question of how man interacts with the wonders of the universe has been of particular fascination to the Bavarian filmmaker.
Grizzly Man, that unforgettable documentary about a man who lived and died among grizzly bears in Alaska, is perhaps his best-known attempt at answering the riddle. Herzog’s latest shot at it comes in the shape of Into the Inferno, a new documentary released on Netflix this month. (The indefatigable director also has another documentary, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, out in cinemas now.)
Into the Inferno is a survey of volcanoes and the people across the globe who study, worship and live next to them. Herzog has explored these behemoths of nature before, first in La Soufrière in 1977 and then in 2007’s Encounters at the Edge of the World. From that latter movie he brings back volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, a cheerful geek from Cambridge University, to guide us through the science and spirituality that the film encounters on its globetrotting journey through landscapes as disparate as the Pacific Islands, Iceland and, thanks to Oppenheimer’s university work, North Korea.
Herzog’s approach to documentary-making is by now familiar and at time verges on self parody, but Into the Inferno is, nevertheless, an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work. Archive footage of devastation mingles with stunning aerial shots of fiery volcanoes. In the interviews dotted throughout, Herzog, as is his way, gives as much time to the tribesman who believes he spoke to a spirit in the volcano as to the scientist explaining the fallout from a massive eruption 100,000 years ago. The director’s ability to punctuate serious explorations with comic moments is also very much in play.
At the foot of one volcano, a building which looks a lot like a giant chicken turns out to be a Catholic church, while on the tiny Tanna Island a faith based on the belief that an American GI will fall from the sky is, Herzog tells us in his much-mimicked accent, riven with schisms – the size of a religion clearly being no bar to infighting.
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