A documentary from Werner Herzog called Into the Inferno seemed worth catching at the Rome Festival of Cinema. I mean, volcanoes and Herzog?! Surely there would be people sailing over seas of lava in special boats (that’d they’d hauled over the mountain themselves, natch). Or maybe they’d be hanging from helicopters inches from the magma trying to get the perfect shot. The opening image encouraged this expectation, the camera flying over a group of volcanologists standing on a steep one-slip-and-you’re-gone ridge overlooking a particularly fruity volcano.
However that just was a tease. There is some unnerving archive footage of French couple Katia and Maurice Krafft getting insanely close to red hot lava flows (the voice over tells us it ended badly for both of them) but otherwise the title is a bit of a misnomer. Into the Inferno covers a variety of subjects – volcanoes are at the root but Herzog’s interest spews over into palaeontology in Ethiopia, brainwashing in North Korea and insane false religion in Malaysia. At times the film tips away from the physical phenomena and looks at the bizarre beliefs that have developed amongst people who live near volcanoes. There are peculiar interludes with British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer asking tribal leaders about their beliefs. For example, somewhere in Indonesia an American GI is venerated, the local people believing that one day he will visit them and give them lots of consumer goods. Oppenheimer nods politely, but appearing to take these statements seriously reduces the impact of what could have been a riveting film.
Into the Inferno is best when Oppenheimer is enthusiastically explaining historical explosions or looking around monitoring stations showing us the bunkers in which the local scientists hope to survive if there is an eruption. His incidental tales add to the value, particularly when he tells of one moment when it seems crime did pay. The only man to survive one early eruption was the baddest man in the city – everyone else died but this fellow survived the lava flow owing to the thick walled solitary cell in which he had been imprisoned.
The film is full of interesting segments. But they are not the thrilling, volcanic-based excitements that the title implies. The film does reference its title enough to satisfy Trading Standards, but heads off on tangents and gets sidetracked for too long. Nevertheless both Oppenheimer and Herzog are pleasant and engaging screen presences, but though they appear to have thought that there wasn’t enough of a film without the beliefs twist, I’d take a shorter film and less tribal interviews. And a little bit more inferno.