“Werner Herzog Really Likes Volcanoes”

By James Yeh, originally published on (2016)

Illustration by Dane Patterson

The idea of Werner Herzog in North Korea kind of sells itself, but the legendary renegade filmmaker's Into the Inferno delivers on so much more than that concept. Herzog's latest documentary sees him journeying inside the isolated, notoriously guarded dictatorship among other far-flung locales like Indonesia, Iceland, Ethiopia, and Antarctica to explore volcanoes and the cultures, mythologies, and scientists that surround them.

Having scratched his internet itch with this spring's enjoyable if not-quite-transcendent Lo and Behold, the 74-year-old LA-based, Bavaria-born filmmaker is firmly back in his natural element: the elements. The result is poetic, stirring, and gorgeous, a sweeping vision of fiery apocalypse and Herzog's finest documentary since 2007's memorable Encounters at the End of the World . There are numerous arresting moments, particularly a series of astonishing, seemingly extraterrestrial images by—and of—late French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as they stroll dangerously near rivers of flowing lava, like enormous orange-and-black snakes at certain moments, geysers and waterfalls of fire during others. (The couple, Herzog notes, would be killed by a pyroclastic flow, giving these scenes a haunting quality reminiscent of Grizzly Man.)

This complex beauty continues when we are shown a group of young men marching and "rejoicing" in the fog atop Mount Paektu in North Korea. "We thought they were soldiers, but they were university students," Herzog notes, dryly. "But in all this display of the masses," he says, after witnessing a stadium full of orchestrated performers, "I find an underlying emptiness and solitude."

The most amusing, and in some ways characteristic, moment occurs early in the film. Herzog is perched at the lip of Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica, with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whose 2011 book Eruptions That Shook the World was an inspiration for the film. As clouds of smoke float up behind them, the two bundled men calmly discuss the inherent risk of studying volcanoes. "I would love to see it from close up," Herzog admits. "But since it is too dangerous, it would be silly... I'm the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane, taking all precautions."