directed by Werner Herzog
by Walter Chaw About 20 minutes of Werner Herzog's 104-minute Into the Inferno is recycled footage from his own Encounters at the End of the World. Another 20 is a strange diversion into the discovery of a hominid skeleton in Africa featuring a particularly excitable paleoanthropologist. This leaves roughly an hour for the cultural/anthropological examination of cults sprung up around active volcanoes the movie promises, and at least a portion of that is devoted to the amazing footage captured by the late Katia and Maurice Krafft, who, like Kilgore on the beach, never thought they could be killed by the fire. They were. It's the kind of gallows revelation that is the purview of Herzog's mordant documentaries. He is at least as good at this as he is at his more traditional fictions. But Into the Inferno seems tossed-off and unfocused, and not even a partnership with affable British vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer can help Herzog ground this material. A previous incarnation of the filmmaker would find him stealthily building a profile of a man who spends his life staring into magma pools, perched at the edge of pyroclasmic calamity. This Herzog interviews a few chiefs of island cultures, the most fascinating of whom has decided that an American airman lives in the lava and will one day emerge to shower the villagers with a bounty of consumer goods.
That's insane but perhaps no more insane than more established religions. The best part of the film is when Herzog goes to North Korea and essays their culture of Volcano-worship interspersed with their mad propaganda. "Everything they showed us was a show and we ate it up," he says. Compare the mad furor of their fascist wonderland with any ten minutes of a Trump rally and find therein all the social analysis that's otherwise missing from the piece. Into the Inferno is problematic because it's neither timeless in its observations nor timely. I like the idea of examining religion through the lens of proximity to natural threat. Arguably, it's what Herzog's been doing his entire career (there are even clips from Herzog's previous volcano documentary, La Soufrière): engaging in this conversation about how humans are merely another of nature's abominations, but cursed with the desire to make sense of it. This time out, it feels like a filmmaker failing to recapture the whirlwind of his genius--like a movie made at the end of a career. It's listless and haphazardly put together and the obvious seams are peanut-buttered over with echoes from the Herzog pictures that cohered.
Consider the extended sequence where Oppenheimer, armed with a brush, looks for bone fragments in the African silt. He's not having much luck, and at one point says that he should probably stick to his day job. He glances at the camera. It's self-deprecation, sure, and charming; it's also like an attempt at focusing Herzog. There's nothing to be learned from asking this guy to do this thing. The connection is tenuous, to say the least. All the connections are tenuous. It would have been interesting to do what the scientists in Encounters at the End of the World confess they were afraid of Herzog doing: that is, expose the weirdoes in that particular way that Herzog exposes weirdoes in his work. When Herzog summarizes towards the end of Into the Inferno (as he is wont to do), intoning his conclusions about the heat death of the universe, the effect is self-parodic rather than poignant. His cynicism is the joke and the punchline now, a meme-in-waiting and as interesting to watch develop as an obsidian crust over a viscous red sea. Herzog was always the most interesting part of his documentaries, just not in this way. He declines to destroy his subjects with his follow-up questions here. He doesn't leave the camera running for as long as he used to, paying out rope for his subjects to hang themselves. Into the Inferno even has a moment where Clive confirms that Herzog is "sane." He's an old softie, now. That's incredibly boring.