Werner Herzog plus volcanoes. That combo alone should be enough to attract the intrepid filmmaker’s fan base to “Into the Inferno,” another expeditionary documentary from the director whose adventures have taken him from Alaska (“Grizzly Man”) to the Amazon (“Fitzcarraldo”), from distant prehistory (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) to outer space (“The Wide Blue Yonder”). Here, the globe-trotting continues, this time with the vaguely defined goal of trying to ponder the spiritual aspect of volcanoes from as close to the fuming magma as possible — and yet, much of what Herzog finds has an overly familiar feel, as if he is excavating his own past as much as that of the civilizations living at the feet of these volatile sites, and the results are considerably less explosive than one might hope or expect from this Netflix release.
Among the “Encounters at the End of the World” described in Herzog’s 2007 Antarctica doc was a meeting with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer on the rim of the southernmost continent’s Mount Erebus crater. Both parties may seem as reckless as storm chasers, risking their lives to capture footage of active volcanoes, but they share a respect for nature’s awesome, unpredictable power, and a humility in the face of this scientific mystery. It was there, as if examining the earth’s soul via one of its most remote orifices, that Herzog and Oppenheimer sparked a friendship that ignited this project, “inspired” by Oppenheimer’s book, “Eruptions that Shook the World” — enough so that he and writer-director Herzog share a “film by” credit.
Unsurprisingly, Oppenheimer approaches the subject from a scientific background, determined to correct the tone of “doom and gloom” that so often accompanies nature docs about volcanoes — and yet, as the title of his book implies, he seems most engaged when describing the event at Lake Toba, Indonesia, believed to have nearly wiped out early humans. Herzog, on the other hand, is more interested in the mythical dimension of volcanos. “Of all the volcanoes in Indonesia, there is not a single one that is not connected to a belief system,” Herzog observes in his mesmerizing Teutonic accent.
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There’s no denying the allure of watching magma spit and lava rush down mountainsides (as in footage from the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull), especially when accompanied by ominous religious chanting or opera music. And yet, “Into the Inferno” proves most fascinating when documenting the ways in which primitive peoples invest these angry craters with spirits and gods — as in Vanuatu, where Chief Isaac Wan and his cult worship an American soldier named John Frum, who lives in the volcano and will one day return with gifts of Western goods for everyone.
And why shouldn’t they fear the capricious volcanoes that have destroyed their communities without warning in the past? “It is a fire that wants to burst forth, and it could not care less what we are doing up here,” Herzog muses, thinking in macro terms — as opposed to the more humanist lens through which he made Death Row docu-essay “Into the Abyss,” with its inexplicably similar title. But it’s not just backwards cannibal tribes who show deference to their local volcanoes. In a long, somewhat meandering visit to North Korea, Herzog deconstructs the country’s propaganda, which associates Kim Jong-il with sacred Mount Paektu (where nearby nuclear tests are thought to be stirring the volcano to life, tempting Armageddon one way or another).
If volcanoes are indifferent to “scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans,” what can we do when one explodes? You can imagine Herzog chuckling as a scientist instructs him how not to duck and cover, but rather to look up and dodge any projectiles launched into the air. Still, daredevil reputation aside, the director has no intention of sharing the fates of French volcanophiles Katia and Maurice Krafft, who spent their careers filming precariously close to active sites (their up-close footage is both breathtaking and foolhardy) before eventually dying on the job, consumed by the scorching pyroclastic flow of a Japanese volcano. At one point, venturing recklessly close to smoking Mount Sinaburg, Herzog’s team nearly joins them, witnessing a dramatic eruption, but escaping before it turns deadly a few days later. For the rest of us, “Into the Inferno” is as close as we’ll get.