The camera glides up the side of a mountain. A small group of people comes into the frame, peering over a ridge, giving us a sense of scale for just a second. The camera passes over them and suddenly you see the magma churning and realize they are standing atop the mouth of the volcano. It takes a moment to realize this isn’t CGI, and the effect is incredible.

This is how Werner Herzog opens his new documentary, Into the Inferno. With co-4 starsdirector Clive Oppenheimer, a Cambridge professor, leading a tour of volcanoes around the world, the movie shows not just the awesome power of the volcanoes, but also their effect on the life and culture of the people who live near them.

Their first stop is an archipelago about a thousand miles east of Australia. Living at the base of one of the many active volcanoes in the area, Chief Mael Moses explains that the locals believe that when loved ones die, their spirits go to live under the volcano. People go to the volcano to talk to the departed, though not everyone possess the ability. The use of classical and operatic music throughout the movie makes it easy to see how the power and mystery of these volcanoes seems religious to those who encounter them regularly.

But their destructive potential is also well represented. While filming in a village at the base of a volcano in Indonesia, Herzog’s narration tells us there has not been an eruption for several years. “Feeling that this was distant enough in time, no one was expecting what happened next,” he says, ominously, as all hell starts to break loose on camera.

We are also shown footage from an Icelandic town in the 1970s where there had been no indication of volcanic activity until the ground split open and began spewing lava hundreds of feet into the sky.

While Herzog is known for presenting a slightly unusual perspective, his co-director Oppenheimer also brings a lot to the documentary. In addition to his volcano expertise, he shares a hilarious scene in Ethiopia with an American scientist sifting through desert sand for bone fragments. He is the loud, colourful, back-slapping American stereotype, and watching him interact with the mild-mannered, very British Oppenheimer could have been its own movie.

Oppenheimer also uses his Cambridge credentials to get Herzog and their crew into North Korea–an opportunity so unusual Herzog jumps at the chance to film there. Under the watchful eye of government officials, the filmmakers are greeted by a military song and dance, literally. This part of the movie is more about North Korean culture than volcanoes, but if you were told somebody let Werner Herzog wander around North Korea with a camera, you’d want to watch that, wouldn’t you?

Like most Werner Herzog documentaries, the subject may itself be fascinating–as volcanoes are–but he has a way of making us see that it’s the people in the story, even those on the periphery, that are truly remarkable.

 

Title Into the Inferno
Director Werner Herzog,  Clive Oppenheimer
Writer Werner Herzog
Runtime 104 min
Starring Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, Katia Krafft
Production Matter of Fact Media, Spring Films, Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Netflix
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