In Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog followed a variety of people either intimately or tangentially associated with the Internet, weaving together a series of episodes with a sense of diversity that reflected the arbitrariness of an occasionally beautiful and often terrifyingly ungovernable medium. The looseness of the film’s structure correlated with its subject, allowing Herzog to personalize a domesticized topic that’s seemingly at odds with his tactile world of fearless eccentrics and visionaries.
In Into the Inferno, the filmmaker collaborates with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, surveying volcanoes in a similarly intuitive and wandering manner, and merging thematically linked riffs together into a tonal symphony. Majestically and primordially powerful, volcanoes are a natural opportunity for Herzog to explore his career-spanning interests in the existential frailty and will of humankind (and he’s addressed them before, in La Soufrière and Encounters at the End of the World), but Into the Inferno ultimately suffers from the structure that served Lo and Behold.
The busy-ness of Into the Inferno’s conceit grounds Herzog in a documentary procedural form that’s surprisingly conventional by his standards. People of all walks of life discuss the impact of volcanoes in their society, and while Herzog arranges them in typically shaggy and revealing tableaus, we’re not allowed to savor as much as we’d like; fascinating stimuli rush by us in a blur of figurative bullet points while the film moves from continent to continent.
In the most purely absorbing passage, a religious ceremony in Indonesia links the roiling fire of the mountaintop to the churning water of the ocean, while an unforgettable bird-shaped church, the “chicken church,” serves as a beacon of Roman Catholic values in the predominantly Muslim country. In Ethiopia, Herzog sifts through the desert with Tim D. White, a charismatic paleoanthropologist who likens fossil-hunting to gambling, amusingly deflating the gravity of searching for no less than the origin of human life, offering a theatrical metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge and greatness that hits at the manna of Herzog’s own life’s work.
Either of these subjects—or any of the dozen others that Herzog covers—would make for an extraordinary film, but Herzog offers a sampler platter, and a volcano, unlike the Internet, isn’t a fluid and intangible property, but a fixed beacon, a testament to Earth’s possible unknowable-ness and to humankind’s smallness in the scheme of existence, and so it’s no wonder that any culture significantly impacted by volcanoes has incorporated them into their religious practices. Herzog promisingly links volcanoes to religious manipulation, particularly in North Korea, showing quiet cityscapes dominated by people unquestionably following orders, reading their government propaganda in silence, or lingering on a tour guide who’s so enthralled with the country’s repressive ideology that he can’t answer a simple question without resorting to scripted platitude. Considering the country’s controversial isolation from the rest of the world, Herzog’s casual springing of this North Korean footage is devastating and demanding of further development and refinement.
Into the Inferno might provoke an infantile yet persuasive reaction within us: the want for more volcanoes, and a singular subject through which to experience them. There are fleeting moments here of Herzog-ian rapture: Close-ups of mountaintops, namely the volcano in Lake Toba, Indonesia, are rendered by the filmmaker as churning furnaces of fire overtaking the frame, connoting the existential humbling that’s frequently discussed by Herzog’s subjects. The images of lava are powerful for suggesting celestial mixtures of ash and marshmallow, or sometimes of flesh exploding into the sky.
Herzog also includes archive footage of eruptions, such as that shot by the French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who filmed remarkably dangerous sequences of lava flowing along canyons, snaking in and out of rocks like great serpents. The Kraffts died for their obsession, in an eruption in Japan, and so they’re also ideal protagonists for a Herzog film, but they’re covered in passing like everyone and everything else in this production. Into the Inferno has unforgettable moments, but Herzog’s daring spontaneity, often the font of his inspiration, scans here as indecision.