An archeologist, a North Korean dictator, a Norse god, two photographers, the people of Indonesia and a tribal chief who believes Jesus is actually black American WWII soldier John Frum all look into a volcano and see their fates. That’s not the beginning of a joke; it’s the premise of Werner Herzog’s newest documentary, Into the Inferno. Of course, not all these people (and entities) are looking into the same volcano at the same time, but their lives are in some way intertwined with a bubbling cauldron of molten lava, and Herzog unearths wildly fascinating stories about them. But to the film’s detriment, each chapter barely skims the surface of these strange people and places, the end result feeling more like a very long trailer for six different, amazing movies than one developed, cohesive film.
Take the John Frum believers, who are adamant that America and their island of Ambrym in Vanuatu are connected through an underground channel whose gateway is their local volcano. Holy men make a pilgrimage to the fiery cradle to commune with Frum. While it might be an easy jump for a religion to ascribe a hellmouth persona to its volcano, Herzog's interviewees are adamant the volcano is a gate to knowledge and a kind of heaven.
What’s off-putting about Herzog’s introduction to this story, however, is that he doesn’t reveal the John Frum elements of their volcanic worship — arguably the oddest, most Herzogian element — up front. Instead, the documentary begins with volcanologist and Herzog surrogate Clive Oppenheimer interviewing Chief Mael Moses before they visit some tribal dancers and Moses muses on why these filmmakers would care at all about their volcano. What happens next is akin to the old comedy trick of giving us a freeze frame, a record scratch and “You’re probably wondering how I got myself into this situation” voice-over, in this case followed by footage from the making of Herzog’s 2007 doc Encounters at the End of the World.
The transition seems clever at first, but as the story strays further and further away from Ambrym, the shift comes off as a too-convenient cop-out, as if Herzog couldn't find another way into the film and had to sacrifice the full telling of these people’s story just to get that entry point from the chief. And it’s not exactly clear why the story was split in half as bookends for the film — its narrative punch hits less hard than the story of a photographer couple who for 23 years filmed erupting volcanoes at close range until they were swept up in a “pyroclastic flow” and killed at Mount Unzen in Japan.
What’s strange is that those two photogs — Katia and Maurice Krafft — are a mere footnote in this film, with a handful of gorgeous, surreal, archived video clips of them wandering calmly in head-to-toe silver suits toward churning magma that's getting flung sky-high. But nothing else is told about them or how they risked their lives all over the world to get footage that would help locals encourage their governments to evacuate citizens. The idea that every bit of knowledge we have about volcanoes comes from people who either risked their lives or gave them entirely to the cause of scientific advancement seems barely interesting to Herzog, but perhaps this is his blind spot — a man who’s sacrificed his own body for his art can’t see how strange that is to other people.
Herzog is usually so adept at gathering the human stories behind the headlines, but much of what’s relayed here feels almost textbook, or at the very least Wikipedia-ish. Meanwhile, the North Korean footage could most easily be extracted for its own film — and I’d be surprised if there weren’t a separate Herzog movie soon on the subject.
It’s there, in Pyongyang, that Herzog finds himself distracted by others’ lack of distractions, namely cellphones and computers. It could be that he’s still tracking his line of thought from his other 2016 release, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, in which every citizen is craning his or her neck forward toward a tiny screen. Here the director feels compelled to remark on his footage of malls filled with people and no cellphones in sight. But that, again, is a different movie, one that barely has a tangential relationship to volcanoes. Throughout this chapter, I kept having to remind myself of the connections: North Korea has a reverential relationship to a lava-spouting crater, which somehow informs why the country is a dictatorship … maybe.
One of the most satisfying elements of Into the Inferno is something Herzog doesn’t seem entirely comfortable portraying: His friendship with Oppenheimer, an introverted but adventurous scientist, is sweet and storied. At one point, Oppenheimer reassures Herzog, who’s behind the camera, that “it’s quite clear that you’re sane.” There’s a moment’s pause that follows, almost as though Herzog is pondering his friend’s assessment before agreeing. It’s interesting that Herzog’s most salient thought in this film is that volcanoes remind us that, no matter how stable we appear to be, there is something bubbling, boiling, waiting to burst forth beneath. Despite his attempt to stay behind the camera, these beautiful moments of friendship and the questioning of stability desperately call for Herzog to jump into the inferno himself.