"I always ask myself, [what] do these people want to do with that fire?" Chief Mael Moses asks with a chuckle.
Moses hails from the Endu village on the island nation of Vanuatu, in the shadow of Mount Ambrym, an active volcano. From Moses' point of view, the British volcanologist and a German filmmaker who seek to peer into the mountain's crater are quite literally playing with fire. The volcano's spirit is suspicious of foreigners, he says, jealously guarding its ancestral place in the people of Endu's culture. For three years after it erupted in 1968, no tourists were allowed to see the lava lake.
Throughout filmmaker Werner Herzog's new Netflix documentary film, "Into the Inferno," he and his counterpart, volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge University, have many such encounters as they chronicle their scientific and spiritual journey to visit Earth's greatest time bombs and the people who live around them. From Indonesia to Ethiopia to Antarctica, the two scour the globe for mythological and anthropological clues to understanding man's relationship with volcanoes.
Man versus the volcano
Coming across as sort of an absent-minded professor, Oppenheimer provides didactic explanations of volcanic events in history and their role in communities today. Herzog's narration guides the viewer through their more introspective musings. A theme that runs through "Into the Inferno" is the transient, extinguishable nature of human life in the face of such uncontrollable forces as volcanic eruptions. It's reminiscent of Herzog's "Grizzly Man,” a film that explores the fine line between man and wild and rejects the "New Age romanticization of nature."
In a 2011 interview with Outside magazine about "Grizzly Man," Herzog said:
"When you look out at the universe at night and you look at the stars, you know that there is a huge mess out there, and it's very hostile and very inhospitable. There is no such thing as the harmony of the Earth. I'm not buying this New Age crap."
Herog and Oppenheimer begin in the South Pacific, then go back in time to 10 years ago when Herzog, while filming a different movie, joined a group of scientists on Mount Erebus in Antarctica, dodging shooting chunks of lava rock. There, he met Oppenheimer. Then the film takes the audience to Ethiopia, where Herzog searches for 100,000-year-old human fossils — remains deposited just after a climate-altering volcanic event in the region. Later, the two gain gain rare, state-authorized access to visit Mount Paektu in North Korea, a sacred volcano that has become the country's national emblem.
Despite its travelogue tone, "Into the Inferno" dwells on the people Herzog and Oppenheimer meet living in the volcanoes' vicinity. Everywhere they go, they see the volcanoes' historical and symbolic place in people's cultures. Idiosyncratic moments like a group of wild, painted children snarling and growling, a "chicken church" in Indonesia, a man explaining why his island’s volcano is named "mythical American G.I. descended from the clouds" give the film its color.
"Into the Inferno" comes in what is being called the golden age of documentary filmmaking by some critics. Documentaries now compete with Hollywood films for ticket sales and the blurring between fiction and nonfiction has changed the consumer landscape. Leonardo Dicaprio’s "Virunga," an exhilarating hybrid between nature documentary and action film, is a recent example of this documentary activism.
Herzog takes a refreshingly traditional approach to cinematography, eschewing big time lapses in favor of long, quieter scenes that give the footage space to breath, a style now becoming less typical on screen. His artistry and unique vision are more subtly expressed in the repeated choir music, music of priests fit for cathedrals, playing over scenes of smoking peaks and falling lava throughout the film.
The juxtaposition couldn't be more clear. Music of heaven contrasted with scenes of hell fire, high culture versus raw nature, religion and science. These dichotomies are at the heart of the film, and they compel the viewer to contemplate these unsettling contrasts within our world and how we fit into them.