Published Oct 25, 2016This review was originally published during TIFF
In promoting his internet-themed documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, acclaimed veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog has been discussing the likes of Harambe and Pokémon Go with interviewers. His recent projects include a dreadful Nicole Kidman movie (Queen of the Desert) and a Killers concert flick for Vevo. And his nihilistic narration is as ripe for parody as ever, prompting an endless stream of YouTube joke videos. If you worried that Herzog had become more meme than man, you weren't alone.
Fortunately, Into the Inferno is a remarkable return to form for the documentarian, harkening back to the quality of Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World. A rumination on volcanoes and their role in civilizations around the world, it's another stunning study of the human condition that could only come from Herzog.
To discover and understand the world's volcanoes, Herzog teams up with expert Clive Oppenheimer — a man he first met while working on Encounters. The pair travel all over the globe, from Indonesia to Ethiopia to Iceland to North Korea, to explore volcanoes of all shapes and sizes.
Though his expertise is undeniable, there's another good reason that Oppenheimer is a welcome addition to the film. With his colourful wardrobe, tousled hair and inviting British accent, Oppenheimer is a warm and jovial force onscreen, making him the perfect foil for Herzog's stern German presence.
Oppenheimer's kindness only makes us appreciate Herzog even more, and the filmmaker's beats are all here — from his gruff voiceovers to his meandering plot points. As always, Herzog is as happy to get side-tracked by a metaphorical distraction or a peculiar set piece as he is to interview experts, and these tendencies prove absolutely enthralling when he's filming inside a giant "chicken church" monument in Indonesia, or walking through the surreal train stations of North Korea.
The film occasionally feels all over the place, but it's never distracting. Instead, you'll find yourself excitedly anticipating the next twist and turn while pondering the meaning of existence. It's part nature documentary, part sociological study.
That said, Into the Inferno does what it promises to, offering an unprecedented glimpse of volcanoes by pairing eye-popping footage of their molten lava with grandiose classical music. These forces of nature are devastatingly beautiful, despite their potential to destroy all of humanity. Could there be a more perfect subject for Werner Herzog to tackle?