“IT IS HARD to take your eyes off the fire that burns deep under our feet, everywhere, under the crust of the continents and sea beds,” Werner Herzog says in his new Netflix documentary Into the Inferno. “It is a fire that wants to burst forth, and it could not care less about what we are doing up here. This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles, and vapid humans alike.”
Inspired by Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer’s Eruptions That Shook the World, Into the Inferno finds Herzog and Oppenheimer meeting a decade ago in Antarctica before traveling together to seek out volcanoes around the world—from the Vanuatu Archipelago to Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland, even North Korea. Oppenheimer’s the kind of guy who can casually pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. Herzog’s the kind of guy who, even as he captures bone-rattling footage of vaulting magma (what it looks like, he notes, when “the interior of our planet reveals its strange beauty”), is equally drawn to the religions and histories volcanoes have inspired.
Another filmmaker would be content to shoot some crazy exploding lava and call it a day. Herzog, though, finds more: Into the Inferno features scientists hunting for shards of ancient skeletons, a cargo cult singing and dancing beneath the ominous glow of an active volcano, and surreal proof of how North Korea’s dictators twisted the mythological power of Mount Paektu. Herzog finds eruptions and their haunting devastations, volcano shelters and predictors, and a concrete church, supposedly shaped like a dove, slowly taking form. (“Yes,” one of the construction workers admits, “most people say it’s like a chicken. They call it the Chicken Church.”) Herzog and Oppenheimer seek volcanoes; they also seek nothing less, as Herzog puts it, than “the demons, the new gods.”
And beneath it all, rumbling and roaring beneath dialogue and ash, magma bursts to the surface in fiery towers and burning rivers. It’s loud, and it’s monumentally indifferent to those of us watching. Turn your speakers up.