Herzog vs. the Volcano

"Into the Inferno", by famed German documentarian Warner Herzog, features stunning cinematography and raises questions about the mystery of life and the inevitability of death.

MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: (4 out of 5 reels)

“Extinction is the rule; survival is the exception” – Carl Sagan

Into the Inferno (which must not be confused with Dan Brown’s dreadful Inferno, starring Tom Hanks) opens on a barren landscape, filmed high in the skies. As the camera pans up over the credits, the audience discovers they are on the edge of an enormous volcano. The view goes up over the black horizon into the caldera where thousands feet of straight below the fiery, bubbling mantle of the Earth is exposed. Director and narrator Warner Herzog tells us this is one of only three places where the bowels of the planet are open and reveal its secrets. 

This introduction, easily one of the best cinematic sequences of the year, suggests many things: the wonder of creation, the endless curiosity of humanity, the inevitability of death, the role of cinema in society, the madness of Herzog himself—all in one, long beautiful shot. This is the genius of Herzog, the best documentarian working today. He finds the most unique corners of the human experience, then captures their mystery and majesty for mankind to ponder. At its best, it reveals that contemplation is one of the chief joys of being human.

Herzog has had a special affinity for volcanos since his earliest days as a filmmaker, including Salt and Earth, a fictional film he directed (and which is also debuting this year). His guide to volcanology is Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, a British scientist Herzog met while filming Encounters at the End of the World (2007). They struck up an instant friendship over a common curiosity and now travel the world together. While there is plenty of science, Herzog is more interested with the “magical” side of these gateways into the Earth, the term “magical” a post-modern term for “religious”. For example, in the Vanuatu village of Endu, Chief Mael Moses believes that spirits live in volcano and that foreign tourists were responsible for an eruption that occurred in 1968. In Ethiopia, volcanic soil has preserved the bones of a human nearly a hundred millennia old, attracting an eccentric Berkley professor who sports a Giants hat in 120 degree weather. Most frighteningly, Communist dictator Kim Il-sung (1912-94) claimed that the Korean people were born from Paektu Mountain, a huge volcano with a lake in its crater, and built a cult of personality that would have shocked even George Orwell. 

The one thing that unites all these volcanos is apocalyptic upheaval, change, and destruction: the often deadly and shocking nature of the Universe is revealed through the decimation of all things. To prevent this, shamans offer rituals and songs to placate the gods. Scientists try to invent new technologies that hope to read signs of impending doom. Oppenheimer proudly displays a gas spectrometer he built that saved twenty thousand lives by measuring the amount of sulfur dioxide on the mountain. “I haven’t seen it in two years,” he smiles. “It’s my baby.”

Neither priest nor professor, however, can stop the inferno when it chooses to rise. Chief Moses soberly expresses his belief that one day Mt. Ambrym will erupt and consume the village. Mainstream religions are tempted by this attitude as well. Paganism and pantheism alike agree that one day the world will end with total destruction, either through Ragnarok or anatta. This nihilism is the center of all Herzog films. Nature simply does care about our interests. It was there before; it will be there after.

Yet despite Herzog’s bleak interpretation, he does not impose his beliefs on the audience. Secretly, he himself must believe there is far too much wonder in the world for it to mean nothing. In the face of such natural beauty, thorough-going atheism is impossible. Man needs myths and rituals, and even science can become a philosophy or religion. The only answer to this unnerving paradox – the finality of death and the beauty of life – is found in Jesus Christ. He did not merely embrace the world, nor did he destroy it: he created it, entered it, and transformed it (cf. Rom 8:18-25). He entered into death, then conquered it. Consider these words from St. John Chrysostom’s Easter sermon:

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

If extinction is the final rule, why are we here at all? Centuries before Sagan, the Angelic Doctor recognized that if there was infinite time, then the inferno should have already consumed us all. Yet, we are here. For the light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out.” Like Herzog, we can look at the volcano with terror and wonder. With Christ, we can smile and walk away, safe in the knowledge that it is not the end.   

About Nick Olszyk 88 Articles

Nick Olszyk is Chair of the Department of Religion at Cornelia Connelly School in Anaheim, CA. He has directed several short films and is the new father of the aptly named Nick Jr. He was raised on bad science movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.