Film Review: Into the Inferno


★★★☆☆
There's something deeply unsettling about the unstoppable, magma-like flow of Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno. Imperceptibly bubbling away in time with the veteran filmmaker's monotone delivery, and left-field, impenetrable musings on mankind's interaction with the natural world, this documentary may concern itself with the incendiary hostility of some of Earth's most dangerous volcanic activity but the tentacled rivulets of human consciousness attributed to these volatile mountains of fire seep under the skin to chilling effect.

In a global voyage of delirious discovery Herzog once again teams up with Cambridge University volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, nine years after the pair met while the Bavarian director was filming Encounters at the End of the World. "What is it like to stare into the depths of the inferno?" Dropped into the South Pacific, Oppenheimer - who dutifully appears in front of Herzog's camera throughout as a friendly interlocutor to locals - asks the chief of a Vanuatu village what the great Mount Yasur means to his people: spirits live inside it, its flashes of lava are a manifestation of the devil's ire, and his brother can speak to its fiery depths. In spite of the varying degree of implausibility of testimony, never will a word of judgement or condescension be uttered by either Oppenheimer or Herzog.

Affronting, or rather inspecting, a series of belief systems in turn, a cautious distance of observation and ultimately respect is maintained in both Oppenheimer's questioning of subjects and Herzog's beguiling and intermittent wonderings. As well as scientific facts and figures it's the "magical side" of things which Herzog seeks to elucidate with Into the Inferno. Recalling for a moment his former film and the summit at which the now close friends met, he theorises that the ever-moving crust of a volcano is representative of there being no permanence to man kind. Such existentialism requires leaps of faith but his manner of thinking exists on a plain high above the clouds in what must be a wondrous place. His self-assurance does induce moments of unexpected, and largely unintended, hilarity - "I am the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane" - but it's with a similarly bemused fascination, wonderment and sporadic fear that we travel on.

To Indonesia and inexplicable ceremonies and tales of catastrophic blasts in the mists of time; then Ethiopia and an archaeological dig to recover hominid bones perhaps buried for 100,000 years until now; to Iceland and ancient warnings of fire and brimstone bringing the world to an end. It's the film's final, and strongest, portion where Herzog and Oppenheimer are afforded a rare glimpse behind the curtain of North Korea that Into the Inferno truly erupts. The Great Leaders of this enigmatic nation have historically harnessed the symbolic power of Paektu Mountain to project themselves as divine rulers and Herzog captures the blind, hysterical devotion of a brainwashed people with neutral candour that is as shocking as it is unfathomable.

Matthew Anderson| @behind_theseens

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