Film Festival Movie Review

Film Review: INTO THE INFERNO: Werner Herzog’s Surprisingly Human Volcano Doc [TIFF 2016]

Werner Herzog Into the Inferno

Into the Inferno Review

Into the Inferno (2016) Film Review from the 41st Annual Toronto International Film Festival, a movie directed by Werner Herzog, and starring Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, Maurice Krafft, Katia Krafft, and Mael Moses.

Into the Inferno is a documentary from German director Werner Herzog. The film takes a look at the physical history and cultural significance of volcanoes in Ethiopia, Iceland, Indonesia, North Korea, and Tuvalu. Herzog is joined by Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist from Cambridge who met the German director 10 years prior while he was filming the 2007 Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World.

Into the Inferno has a fascinating blend of Earth science and anthropology. Audiences get the chance to learn about the biological history of earth, and about how volcano worship is a common thread in cultures from all around the world. Some of the facts from the film will astound and terrify you.

One of Herzog’s talents as an auteur is his ability to find and document interesting people in the most remote of places. These memorable characters range from the singing man who refused to evacuate his home in face of the impending eruption of a volcano on the island of Guadaloupe, to the sassy paleontologist Tim Miller who digs through piles of silt in Ethiopia in search of hominid fossils.

A few audience members might leave the theater wanting to have seen a few more money shots of exploding volcanoes; however, the quality of the footage provided far exceeds the need for a greater quantity of scenes. In particular, Herzog’s usage of footage from 1992’s Lessons of Darkness, featuring volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, will generate a great deal of anxiety for audience members. I found myself silently, but intensely beckoning the volcanologists to return to safety as they plodded in metal suits towards a hot, rushing river of magma.

The most interesting and somewhat bizarre of these volcano sects is definitely the John Frum cargo cult (a subject worthy of a documentary of it’s own), located on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. John Frum is a mythical American G.I. who is said to use Mount Tukosmera, one of the film’s active volcanoes, as a portal to travel between Vanuatu and the United States. People who worship John Frum believe that he will one day return to Vanuatu with a massive cargo drop of food and luxury Western goods for his loyal followers.

The film also covers North Korea’s Mount Paektu, a volcano that plays a central role in the country’s deification of Kim Il-sung. Footage from inside North Korea is always a rare treat, but as Herzog mentions in his narration, the country only shows what it wants people to see. Still, there are parts of the North Korea footage that are striking.

While filming Mount Paektu, the crew is approached by a group of college students who North Korea would like us to believe are not part of any presentation, and are genuinely there to visit the mountain and “draw strength” from it. One thing that North Korea can’t hide about these students is how frail and thin they seem, and how dated their military uniforms appear when considering what first world nations put on their soldiers’ backs today.

Herzog also chooses to include footage of North Korea’s Mass Games, a nationalist spectacle held in celebration of the Kim Dynasty, as well as footage of wealthy Pyongyang children performing songs and dances for the cameras. As with the Chicken Church in Indonesia, sometimes this footage seems only tangentially relevant to the main theme of volcanoes. However, the footage itself provides a greater cultural context for the volcanoes, and some of these things are simply too interesting to omit anyway.

What’s very important about Into the Inferno is that Herzog doesn’t pass any judgment on the beliefs of his documentary subjects. Instead, he presents us with a look into the beliefs, cultures, and histories that revolve around important volcanoes from across the globe, and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about what to believe. Every history and religion is presented on the same level.

Like all of Herzog’s films, his characteristic dry narration is the key ingredient that holds this film together. Into the Inferno is surprisingly funny at times. Some of Herzog’s dry one-liners caused the theater to erupt into laughter.

The film is mostly a success, but there are a few small hiccups here and there. One issue was that there’s a lack of connectivity between each of the volcano segments. At times, Into the Inferno felt more like a series of shorts, rather than a unified feature with a central message. The missing transitions between the sections lead me to wonder why the volcanoes were presented to us in any particular order.

One other small issue that could have been corrected is in the subtitles. Most accented speech is subtitled throughout the film. However, the editors of the film chose not to subtitle any of the speakers from Vanuatu. It was a little difficult at a few points to understand these speakers clearly without subtitles.

There are certainly unifying elements between the volcanoes and how they have affected the culture and landscape in their individual countries. What emerges in this film is one of the major themes that occurs repeatedly throughout Herzog’s work, which is how humanity struggles to reconcile itself with the indifference of nature.

Ultimately, Into the Inferno perfectly captures the power, terror, and danger of a volcano. The film is set to be distributed via Netflix sometime in the future. Even if you don’t normally go for nature documentaries, this film is surprisingly human, and manages to keep your attention. If you’re looking for a globe-trotting jaunt with memorable characters and a look into the role played by volcanoes in humanity’s rich history, this film is for you.

Rating: 8.5/10

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About the author

Mary Cox

Mary Cox is a film critic and pop culture writer from the United States. In 2012, she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in Cinematic Arts. Mary has spent the past five years living and working in ten different countries, including Nicaragua, China, and Honduras. She is currently based in Canada and covers festivals and screenings in the Greater Toronto Area.

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