Into the Inferno (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Volcanic awes presented by Werner Herzog

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Looking around several different volcanoes around the world, Werner Herzog’s documentary film “Into the Inferno” serves us with many awe-inspiring moments which will definitely look more awesome and terrifying on the big screen. As watching its spectacular sights of smoldering magma pools, undulating lava flows, and towering volcanic smokes, I could not help but think about how dynamic the Earth has been for last 4.5 billion years – and how trivial our history on the planet has been in comparison.

The opening sequence of the documentary instantly grabs our attention with the sweeping continuous aerial shot of a big active volcano in Ambrym Island of the Vanuatu Archipelago, 1,600 km (1,000 mile) east of Northern Australia. After briefly looking over the surrounding area, the camera eventually arrives at the wide crater of the volcano, whose huge scale is quite clear to us as we spot a group of researchers overlooking it from the rim. We soon get a closer look at the bottom of the crater, and then we behold the fearful majesty of the exposed magma pool at the bottom, which is constantly swelling or popping with infernal crimson fury.

There is a village located around the volcano, and we meet its chief, who tells us about how he and other villagers have lived with their dangerous volcano which has been the center of their spiritual belief. After a big eruption in 1968, tourists were prevented from going up to the crater for several years just because villagers believed outsiders were not welcomed by the volcano. They also believe that they will go to the bottom of the crater after they die, and the chief even claims that some of villagers including his own brother are spiritually connected with the volcano.

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The chief is interviewed by Clive Oppenheimer, a British volcanologist who happened to acquaint himself with Herzog when Herzog was shooting his Oscar-nominated documentary “Encounter at the End of the World” (2007) in the Antarctic. As he and Herzog spent some time together while he helped the shooting at Mountain Erebus, both recognized a common bond between themselves as guys driven by what they are respectively fascinated with. In case of Oppenheimer, it is volcanoes and their grand mysteries of nature to be discovered and learned. In case of Herzog, it is those endlessly compelling aspects of human compulsion and obsession, which can be glimpsed from not only Oppenheimer but also the unforgettable heroes of Herzog’s many notable works such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and “Grizzly Man” (2005).

As they go around other volcanic regions around the world, Oppenheimer comes to take the center along with Herzog’s narration in the documentary. He tells us how he came to be interested in volcanoes after visiting a vast Indonesian lake, which was created by a gigantic volcanic eruption around 74,000 years ago. He visits a conservatory near one of the prominent active volcanoes in Indonesia, and he cannot help but be excited when he shows us one of the important measurement equipments in the conservatory, which was in fact invented by him and his colleagues.

While admiring the passion and dedication shown from Oppenheimer and other volcanologists, Herzog also reminds us of the constant dangers in approaching very close to volcanic activities, and this is exemplified well by several clips of remarkable archival footage shot by Katia and Maurice Krafft, who, as Herzog’s narration duly notes, were unfortunately killed along with 41 people by the sudden pyroclastic current erupted from Mountain Unzen in Japan. Pyroclastic current may merely look like a big smokey thing when it is observed from the distance, but I must tell you that this is a very rapid current of hot gas and rock, and, according to Wikipeida, the temperature of the gas can reach to about 1,000 °C (1,830 °F).

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Besides the dangerous epic beauty of volcanoes viewed through him and Oppenheimer, there are also interesting human sights Herzog cannot help but notice. In Indonesia, he looks around a local religious ritual for pacifying a nearby volcano, and then he shows us a big edifice which may be useless in the end but is rather amusing to watch for its odd exterior appearance. In Ethiopia, we meet a team of palaeoanthropologists looking for any valuable hominid fossils in a local volcanic area, and their leader Tim White’s professional enthusiasm is as irrepressible as Herzog’s or Oppenheimer’s. When White and his team luckily discover something priceless after brushing away fine soil on the ground, Herzog dryly muses: “Why this particular spot, and not back there where the goats are roaming?”

In case of Mountain Paektu in North Korea, this volcano is currently dormant with its big, tranquil lake in its crater although there is still the possibility of eruption. Herzog is understandably fascinated with how this mountain has been used as an outrageous propaganda tool for the insane dictatorship in North Korea. This part is surely quite familiar to me and other South Korean audiences, but it feels more amusing than usual thanks to Herzog’s distinctive voice, which can effortlessly hold our attention while often providing sly amusement via its deadpan undertone.

“Into the Inferno” is another mesmerizing work from Herzog, and my only complaint is that I could not watch it at a big theater, but I am glad that this wonderful documentary is widely available via Netflix. While he may be less prominent than before during recent years, Herzog still goes for what interests and fascinates him, and “Into the Inferno” shows us that he has lost none of his mojos yet.

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