‘Into the Inferno’
Director: Werner Herzog
4 (out of 5) Globes
The first shot of Werner Herzog’s volcano doc is one of the best he’s ever pulled off. “Into the Inferno” opens on a misty mountain top caked in fog. The camera prowls up this rocky, mysterious terrain, gazing over once it’s surmounted. It’s then that we stare at the active volcano below, its crimson red magma searing the black-on-gray palette. This opener harkens back to the old days; it could have almost been a shot in “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” the movie that made the German filmmaker’s name as a cinema titan and incorrigible maniac.
Nowadays, Herzog is an Internet Celebrity. But he hasn’t changed; it’s the world’s clickbaiters who’ve caught up with him. He can still be a director to be reckoned with. “Into the Inferno” — his second volcano film since “La Soufriere,” shot on an island whose own was about to erupt (but, alas, didn’t) — isn’t a return to Classic Werner. But it does find him doing what he does best: scouring the globe for otherworldly sights and weirdos, musing on humankind’s insignificance while highlighting our most unique specimens. At heart, he’s a gleaner, and with “Into the Inferno” he’s come back with another satchel of goodies.
Though no sequel, this is a continuation, of sorts, of 2007’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” his exploration of Antarctica and its scientist oddballs. It was there that Herzog found an icy volcano. He also found English volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who joined up with the director, like some kid who followed the circus. Oppenheimer is our guide as we bop around the planet, while Herzog mostly keeps to the narration track. The journey takes us from the South Pacific Island of Tanna to Indonesia to Ethiopia to, improbably, North Korea. We meet a tribe whose ancestors were cannibals. We learn about a married couple known for scoring killer shots of volcanos by getting way, way too close to them, and one day paying with their lives.
Even with the strict parameters, this is more aimless journey than journalism. As always, Herzog is up for detours. When they reach North Korea, he can’t help but wander from the nation’s prize volcano to offer his own hot take on their society that starts open-minded, almost Kool-Aid-drinking then turns despondent. Also as always, Herzog is a magnet that attracts freaks. His biggest find is Tim White, an excitable Berkeley paleoanthropologist who digs up fossils buried by an erupted volcano — or, as Herzog puts it, of course, “sifting through the trash of humans.” Upon finding White, Herzog says, reliably dry, “We were immediately captivated by his wild style of explaining things.” (It’s true: He’s both captivating and wild.) It’s classic Werner, as is when he rhapsodizes, over a shot of a bubbling vat, “This boiling mass is monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.”
By now, does Herzog only drop such chatter — silly yet entirely sincere — because he knows we want them? Perhaps. But he’d probably be saying it even if he wasn’t Internet famous. And “Into the Inferno” is pure-cut Werner, not one that feels shoehorned and constrained, as with his too ambitious Internet plunge “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.” Throughout, Herzog’s famous quote about how the modern age is “starving for lack of images” is repeatedly upended: There are untold money shots of volcanos bubbling, big and billowing ash clouds swallowing villages, magma flowing through crevices like a psychedelic snake. Archival footage of someone in a white suit walking alongside a river of magma looks like it could have come from a cheesy 1950s sci-fi movie like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” —a trompe l’oeil that happens to be real. What he says and finds can be predictable in its unpredictability; of course Werner Herzog wound stumble upon an Indonesian temple that looks like a chicken but is actually a dove. Not that he should ever change, especially when he’ll occasionally give us something as sharp and rich as “Into the Inferno.”