Into the Inferno
Directed by: Werner Herzog.
Written by: Werner Herzog.
A part of me would like a little less Werner Herzog in the recent documentaries directed by Werner Herzog. Probably since around the time of Grizzly Man (2005) – Herzog’s celebrity status has grown – and Herzog has embraced it – doing voice work in The Simpsons and The Penguins of Madagascar, showing up in other roles as either himself, or someone else – memorably in Jack Reacher as the bad guy – and he’s become on a fixture in internet memes and parodies – as many find humor in Herzog voice and narration – the grimer the better. Into the Inferno is his second documentary this year – following Lo and Behold, about the internet, and the second time in which Herzog basically skims the surface of his subject matter, providing an interesting glimpse into one person or culture, then moving on to the next. When Herzog is in this mode, his subject is himself as much as anything – and he excels at finding people who, like him, are obsessive types. In Into the Inferno, he goes around the world, looking at active volcanoes, and those who live and work around them – the ancient tribes whose religion revolves around the volcano, and the scientist who study them, knowing full well it may kill them. Herzog has been obsessed with obsession his entire career – this is the man who made Fitzcaraldo after all, about a man who obsessively wanted to get a huge boat from one Amazon river to another, and decided that, what the hell, I’ll do that too.
There is much to admire about Into the Inferno. The film is available on Netflix for all to see, which will give the film a wider audience than a theatrical release, but doesn’t really help the film. Like Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time – which I saw at TIFF last month – Into the Inferno is the type of film that would certainly play better on the biggest screen imaginable. The shot of the lava are mesmerizing in their beauty, and humbling in their destructive power. The people Herzog interviewes all know that these volcanoes may end up killing them – but they cannot help themselves. They are drawn to them, and they will not let go. Herzog understands, and admires this about them.
To a certain extent though, I wish Herzog would slow down a little bit in films like Into the Inferno and Lo and Behold. Both of his 2016 have many different interview subjects that a filmmaker like Herzog could really do a deep dive with – and come up with something truly fascinating. Like him, they are obsessed with something and dedicate the entirety of their lives to it – but sometimes in these films, it seems like Herzog is far more fascinated with himself than anyone else – that in only spending 10-15 minutes on one person, or one tribe, etc. – he can keep the ultimate subject of the film on as himself. His narration at times is still quite funny and insightful – but at others, he seems to be playing for the crowd.
In lesser hands, Herzog’s films would end up as little more than narcissistic ramblings. What saves them in Herzog’s case is the fact that he has a sense of humor about himself, and the fact that he acknowledges just how meaningless he is – how meaningless we all are as individuals, in any single film. Still, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my favorite film of his since Grizzly Man (and one of the very best of his career) is his death row documentary Into the Abyss (2011) – a film that spent its entire runtime on one story, and had Herzog on the sidelines for much of it (that film is so grim, that even the meme makers stayed away). It also included some of Herzog’s most trenchant and insightful observations – a simple question about a squirrel had the subject, and me in the audience, in tears. The spin off project, On Death Row (made up of four, one hour docs, consisting of interviews Herzog did while trying to settle on a subject for Into the Abyss) is likewise moving and profound.
Herzog remains a fascinating documentary filmmaker (his days as an interesting fiction filmmaker may be behind him – as much as I love Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans) – and Into the Inferno is a fine example of his work. But it doesn’t rise to the level his best work – I think because nothing in it holds his attention for as long as he himself does.