Werner Herzog can be pretty difficult to pin down these days. The venerated German auteur has been making narrative and documentary films for nearly 50 years, with his distinctly morbid outlook on life a consistent theme throughout. After a resurgence in his popularity surrounding his critically acclaimed 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, his public persona has shifted in the eyes of some to almost border on self parody, his lilting accent and obsession with death and strife becoming the target of homage and good-natured ribbing by comedian Paul F. Tompkins and 2015 Sundance darling Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. And if his cameo appearance in Parks and Recreation’s final season is any indication, he certainly appears to be in on the joke. This evolution of his persona has had some interesting side effects as Herzog continues to make films, especially his particular brand of documentary. Usually written and narrated by the man himself, his flowery and macabre language can often come off as more of a joke than it actually is. The two documentaries he has graced the world with in 2016, his soberly titled internet piece Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World and the brand new Netflix release Into the Inferno, point to that sort of internal conflict that can arise from modern Herzog documentaries.
Near the end of Into the Inferno, Herzog makes the following proclamation against a hypnotic background of roiling lava in the caldera of a volcano: “It is hard to take your eyes off the fire that burns deep under our feet, everywhere under the crust of the continents and sea beds. It is a fire that wants to burst forth, and it could not care less about what we are doing up here. This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.” It’s the sort of proclamation so self-serious that awareness of how ridiculous it must sound has to be assumed, but it also points to why Herzog is drawn to this subject. For a man so captivated by the transience of life and the amoral cruelty of an uncaring nature, characterizing the globe itself as a ticking time bomb content to literally destroy the surface of the planet on a tectonic whim is just the sort of fatalism that he needs to frame his story. It isn’t the first time he’s explored volcanoes either; the seed of the idea that grew to become Into the Inferno was planted while making Encounters at the End of the World, with vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer appearing in both projects. Oppenheimer seeks to use science to minimize the destructive power of volcanoes, especially those located in humanity’s vicinity. Herzog is far more interested in examining the religious and spiritual impact of these cultures that surround the most volatile natural phenomena on Earth.
Herzog and Oppenheimer focus on four specific locations: Indonesia, Iceland, Ethiopia and North Korea. They talk to a man who is caretaker of one of the few Christian churches in his area of Indonesia, shaped like a giant dove (though Herzog finds it far more chicken-like in appearance), discuss the origins of human life in Ethiopia and tour an ash-engulfed village in Iceland as Herzog gets to the bottom of what psychologically drives people to build that doomed town in the shadow of a volcano in the first place. Their insights often sound akin to those alien to those of us who don’t actively place settlements in the path of an established natural disaster, but there is a vitality to their simple lives and the inspiration they get from being so close to the raw primordial power and unbridled awe of active volcanoes. The footage provided backs up that sense of awe, whether it’s the eerie feel of seemingly solid rock shifting and folding over like liquid or the Icelandic ash cloud that wreaked havoc on transcontinental flights for months in 2010, curling into the sky as lightning arcs within it. These images can often feel unconnected to the narrative Herzog is mounting, but their beauty is undeniable.
There is a fourth location, of course, and the twenty or so minutes that take place in North Korea are arguably the most intriguing of Into the Inferno. Herzog was given clearance to film inside the infamously secretive country, and while he does spend some time in the mountains with Oppenheimer and draws parallels through art of the Kim dictatorship that includes volcano iconography, he relishes the opportunity to capture a glimpse of the everyday experience of the North Korean people. It isn’t the first time that an outsider has taken footage from within Kim Jong-un’s regime, but it remains fascinating to see the fervor of the citizenry, to see a country where technology and information is heavily restricted. In many ways, the North Korea section of the film sticks out like a sore thumb, with the volcanoes shifting to the back burner for a more general look at life in the country. Footage of train stations, celebrations and a school play are powerful in their own right, but the connection to the rest of the film is tenuous at best.
Into the Inferno can feel a bit too scattershot at times, not just within the North Korea section. It often feels like Herzog gets so immersed in the people he profiles that he can lose track of the connective tissue, and the over the top narration doesn’t have the same punch it did back in, say, Burden of Dreams, where he was interviewed about the making of Fitzcarraldo. But Werner Herzog remains a master of his craft, with full knowledge of the impact of the stories he presents. Into the Inferno may not always add up to the sum of its parts, but its parts are often profound in that particular Herzog way, the ecstatic truth he always seeks coming through. It is definitely a worthy watch, even considering its handful of flaws. There are better documentaries, and far, far worse ones. What is clear is that Herzog’s cinematic voice is still vital, even so many decades into his career.