'Into the Inferno': Telluride Review

Into the Inferno Still - H
Courtesy of TIFF
The narrative rambles, but the images soar.

Prolific director Werner Herzog travels the world to turn his camera on some spectacular, destructive volcanoes.

Werner Herzog has a special relationship with Telluride (he even has a theater named after him in the town park), so it’s not surprising that he presented the world premiere of his newest film, Into the Inferno, at this year’s festival. The director is remarkably prolific. Inferno was completed just a couple of months after Lo and Behold, his meditation on computers and the internet, opened in theaters. Inferno, which might be described as Herzog’s volcano movie, will premiere on Netflix and in theaters at the end of October. It will be great to see this visually spectacular movie on the big screen, though like many Herzog movies, it’s something of a mixed bag that will prove more thoroughly satisfying to the director’s devotees than to general moviegoers.

As is often the case in Herzog’s documentaries, he places himself at the center of the action, but this time he shares the screen with a Cambridge University professor, Clive Oppenheimer, who is one of the world’s experts on volcanic activity. Together the two of them traveled all over the world to regions with active or dormant volcanoes. They start and conclude their journey in an archipelago in the South Pacific but also travel to Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland and — most startlingly — North Korea.

Certainly the highlights of the film are the astonishing shots of volcanic eruptions, with rivers of fire and landslides of hot lava. Herzog has always shown a gift for immersing us in the startling extremes of the natural world, and his images here do not disappoint. What fascinates him about volcanoes? He tells us that he has been interested at least since he made a film in Guadalupe in 1976. We are told that a massive volcano in prehistoric times came close to wiping out all of human civilization, and Herzog seems to feel that volcanoes exemplify the fragility and impermanence of the lives we take for granted. Other natural disasters also illustrate the precariousness of human existence, of course, but it could be that volcanoes are simply the most photogenic.

Along the way, Herzog and Oppenheimer encounter some other fascinating individuals, including tribal leaders in the South Pacific, fossil hunters in Africa and students in North Korea who come to chant at the site of an inactive volcano that created a huge crater lake more than a thousand years ago.

Unfortunately, during some of these visits, the film loses its focus and momentum. In Lo and Behold, Herzog incorporated some brilliant, provocative insights into the computer age, but he also got distracted by bewildering asides. Here the sequence in which Oppenheimer and others find remnants of human bones in Ethiopia goes on much longer than necessary and seems only tangentially connected to the primary themes of the film.

Similarly, Herzog was clearly excited by the rare opportunity to film inside North Korea, but a sequence at a subway station — while certainly intriguing in its own right — has no discernible connection to the infernos that the director ostensibly set out to chronicle. It might be sacrilege to suggest that Herzog could use a more strong-willed collaborator, but this film sometimes turns into a rather misshapen cinematic essay. Nevertheless, you won’t be sorry to witness the apocalyptic images of nature blazing and roaring.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Director-writer-narrator: Werner Herzog
Producers: Andre Singer, Lucki Stipetic
Executive producers: Adam Del Deo, Vanessa Dylyn, Richard Melman, Lisa Nishimura, Jason Spingarn-Koff
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Editor: Joe Bini

Not rated, 104 minutes