TELLURIDE – At face value, the title of Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer’s new documentary “Into The Inferno” and its one sentence description (“An exploration of active volcanoes around world.”) is slightly misleading. It insinuates that the film takes you into the depths of volcanoes like a major scientific expedition. “Inferno” does that to some extent, but Herzog and Oppenheimer are equally interested in exploring the cultural impact of volcanoes around the world. And that impact is significant.
Herzog, the legendary filmmaker behind “Grizzly Man” and “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” struck up a friendship with Oppenheimer when he was shooting a portion of 2007’s “Encounters at the End of the World” at the Mount Erebbus volcano in Antarctica. A professor of volcanology at Cambridge University, Oppenheimer becomes the on the ground eyes and ears for Herzog’s investigation while Herzog mostly stays at home providing his signature commentary.
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The team’s ability to visit volcanoes in Indonesia (no country has more of them) is expected as that nation is constantly under alert for dangerous eruption. Just six years ago, a number of major eruption from Mt. Merapi resulted in the deaths of 138 people. The charming and charismatic Oppenheimer, who spent a good deal of his youth living in Indonesia, takes the crew to a strange new church that’s being built in the shadow of Merapi. The exterior has prompted locals to refer to it as the Chicken Church even though one of the construction workers reveal it’s really supposed to be a dove (you’ll have to judge for yourself). A rare Roman Catholic church for Indonesia, the basement serves as both a crypt and a magma shelter. As they enter the still-in-progress facility Herzog’s voice over deadpans, “Inside we saw nobody in an empty chair watch TV” (which is exactly what the camera shows). Herzog may not always be present, but he’s having fun in the editing room.
Oppenheimer also travels to Mount Yasur on the pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The local tribal chief nonchalantly describes how his brother will go up to the top of the volcano to talk to spirits. That may sound far fetched, but the locals on this island also believe the spirit of an American soldier, John Frum, is living in the volcano and will bring them riches if they worship him. In Ethiopia, they journey to Erta Ale, a volcano that is located in one of the hottest places in the world which is one reason its where obsidian was first discovered. In Iceland, they hold the sacred Codex Regius, a collection of 13th century Norse poems many of which were inspired by the island’s constantly irrupting volcanoes. The most eye-opening trip, however, is to North Korea.
It’s likely gone over the heads of most Westerners, but Paektu Mountain and its picturesque crater lake is an incredibly important part of North Korean culture. Official portraits depict former leaders such as Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in front of it. Soldiers even sing in honor of it. This is because of Paektu’s overall importance in Korean history. It’s believed to be the birthplace of the first Korean leader over 2,000 years ago and during WWII it was used as a stronghold to battle Japanese forces. The government even insists that Kim Jong-il was born there (it was likely the Soviet Union). And the more time Herzog and his crew travel around Pyongyang the more they see Paektu depicted in various forms of propaganda. The crew’s footage is an eye-opening look into a closed nation the general public still knows very little about (at one point Herzog remarks about how odd it is that no one in the metro keeps looking at their cell phones because they simply have none).
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Of course, if you’re looking for gorgeous and up close looks at the inside of different volcanoes around the world Herzog has no intention of disappointing you. Australian cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger takes the camera as far as it can get to the magma filled volcanoes and the aerial views are often breathtaking. In fact, while it is admirable that Netflix funded “Inferno” it’s incredibly disheartening that along with its streaming debut it is currently slated for just a qualifying theatrical release. That means unless you live in Los Angeles and scour the theater listings it won’t play in a theater near you. Not only is Zeitlinger’s work best seen on the big screen it’s a crime it won’t be projected in IMAX format.
It should be noted, that beyond the anthropological global tour the filmmakers really have no grand discovery to share with the viewer. And, frankly, despite Herzog’s efforts to keep it as entertaining as possible, “Inferno” does feel like it overstays its welcome a bit. That being said the access and footage they’ve compiled coalesces into a truly cinematic experience. One that would be hard for anyone else to even fathom attempting to duplicate. [B+]
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“Into The Inferno” debuts on Netflix worldwide on Oct. 28.