With stunning views of eruptions and lava flows, Werner Herzog captures the raw power of volcanoes and their ties to indigenous spiritual practices.
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What with his unique persona, it’s sometimes easy to forget Werner Herzog is a filmmaker first and foremost, and a pretty singular one at that. His latest documentary, “Into the Inferno”, sees him on familiar ground, tackling the ineffable connection between humans and nature: in this case, volcanoes.
Herzog’s exploration reteams him with Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer – whom he previously worked alongside in his 2007 documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World” – as they travel from continent to continent to study different cultures’ co-dependency with these great fiery beasts. We visit Indonesian tribes, with their talk of fire demons, before moving on to Iceland, and a land crafted from volcanic deposits. In Ethiopia, Oppenheimer joins a team of archaeologists, as they search for the fossilised bones of one of the very earliest hominid skeletons, before moving on to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea to you and I), where Mount Paektu is believed to be the birthplace of the first Korean kingdom.
It was during this extended North Korean sequence that my attention began to wane. The visuals were suitably arresting – as is much of the film’s cinematography, with Herzog sending drones soaring over vast scorched vistas – but it lacked insight. “Everything is different in North Korea”, his iconic timbre informs us, there’s “an underlying emptiness and solitude”: but the mind-bending idea that a country still functions in this way in 2016 is barely touched upon.
Herzog may have to have held his tongue, as all their filming (and we can presume the finished film as well) was subject to government-assigned guides and subjects. But, for him to get access to arguably the most fascinating country on Earth, and to not delve deep can only be described as a missed opportunity.
Herzog makes for an entertaining guide, as always, and I definitely learnt a think or two, but “Into the Inferno” lacks any great insight into our bond with nature, in all its fury. Apparently, if you gaze long into the inferno, the magma bubbles just the same.
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