Into the Volcano: Werner Herzog

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In an unnerving documentary, images of throbbing magma are spliced with stories of the people living with the threat of spectacularly destructive eruptions

 On the edge … Oppenheimer, left, and Herzog in Vanuatu. Photograph: Peter Zeitlinger/Netflix

With Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog returns to the subject of active volcanoes, for which he has long had an intense, horrified fascination. There is a nihilistic awe with which he presents his primeval images of churning red lava and throbbing magma, pulsing beneath the Earth’s crust with their terrible destructive power. He loves to fly over volcanoes in a helicopter and look down directly into the boiling epicentre. It triggers a kind of Kurtzian horror. Or perhaps ecstasy.

Despite the title, however, Herzog does not explicitly compare volcanoes to hell. The nearest he comes to theology is a final monologue, delivered in his unmistakable rasp: “It is a fire that wants to burst forth and it could not care less about what we are doing up here. This boiling mass is just monumentally indifferent to scurrying roaches, retarded reptiles and vapid humans alike.” He also interviews a tribal community elder in Vanuatu, who lives in the shadow of a volcano and professes he is mesmerised by the fiery liquefaction of lava in which he sees a vision of the world’s end: “Everything will melt, the stones, the trees, everything, like water …”

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