Into the Inferno review: A hypnotic, fiery film by the legendary Werner Herzog
Into the Inferno
Director - Werner Herzog
Rating - 4/5
“The soil that we are walking upon is not permanent. There is no permanence. No permanence to what we are doing, no permanence to the efforts of human beings. No permanence to art. No permanence to science.” These are words you could only hear in a Wener Herzog film, spoken, hopefully, in that famed, unmistakably meditative monotone, by the legend himself.
There will be many quotes in this review. To not quote Herzog, one of the bravest, most important filmmakers to ever pick up a camera, and certainly the one blessed with the most iconic voice since Elvis, would be like going to one of The King’s shows and not humming the songs on your way back home.
Into the Inferno, his newest documentary, comes just a few months after his last one, and in true Herzog fashion, both films couldn’t be more different. In Lo & Behold, he brought his trademark existentialism in an examination of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the Internet - even offering Elon Musk to be his test subject as they send people on one-way trips to Mars. But for Into the Inferno, Herzog returns to a subject that has fascinated him for years. He made a short film about it in 1977 (La Soufrière) and will revisit it for his next fiction film, also due out this year (Salt and Fire).
His words, the cadence with which he says them elevates his subjects. He finds magic in the unlikeliest places. Here, he isn’t simply talking about volcanoes, and the all-consuming power they wield. He isn’t just investigating their importance to different cultures around the world, from the birthplace of humanity in Ethiopia to the birthplace of North Korean dictatorship. He is a philosopher, a thinker of the highest order. He is incapable of making an empty film. In the words of the great critic Roger Ebert, “Even his failures are spectacular.”
Fortunately, Into the Inferno is one of his better ones.
For decades, he has obsessed, like so many of his characters, about one idea, the theme that connects several of his films – from the fictional ones like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God to his documentaries (which I prefer). Films like Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World are all driven by eccentric men at their centre, isolated at the outer reaches of civilisation, and their extraordinary dreams. Impossible dreams. They are puny, insignificant against their chosen adversary, nature – born with death sentences hanging like a noose around their necks, but also with unrelenting ambition.
Herzog says as much when he visits Indonesia in this film, accompanied by Professor Clive Oppenheimer, his volcanologist friend and presenter. “Obviously, there was a scientific side to our journey,” he says, “But what we were chasing was the magical side; the demons, the new gods.”
“It could not care less about what we are doing up here,” Herzog says, speaking of the inconceivably majestic, living force of nature beneath his feet. “This boiling mass is monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.”
When they go to Iceland, whose cold, black landscape doubled as alien territory in films like Interstellar and Prometheus, Herzog recites from an ancient document predicting a volcanic apocalypse. “’Neath the sea, the land sinketh, the sun dimmeth. From the heavens fall the fair bright stars, gusheth forth steam and gutting fire,” he says, turning the yellowed, crumbling pages. “Toward the heavens soared the hurtling flames. The fates I fathom, yet farther I see of the mighty gods, the engulfing doom comes the darks and dragon flying…”
For decades, Werner Herzog has invoked that famous Nietzsche quote in his work: If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. He even named a film after it in 2011 (his death penalty documentary Into the Abyss). He questions the role of man, insignificant in his opinion, in the grander scheme of things. In Into the Inferno, he has created one of the most literal metaphors of his career. There is a hypnotic power to seeing men, gazing up at the towering infernos in front of them, their chrome protective gear making them appear minuscule, insect-like against the all-consuming volcanoes. But Werner Herzog is here, as he has been for more than four decades, capturing this foolishness.
But does Herzog realise, that for more than four decades, he has been staring into his own abyss... his own inferno? Does he know what documenting these stories can do to a man? These stories of tragedy and hope and loss that he learns about, staring into eyes just as insane as his…