What We Learned from Werner Herzog’s New Movie About Volcanos

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In Werner Herzog’s new documentary Into the Inferno, available on Netflix and in select theaters today, the 74-year-old acclaimed German filmmaker puts himself in the path of spewing lava to profile some of the world’s most powerful and mesmerizing volcanos and their related myths.

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Filming alongside Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, the pair travel to volcanos in the South Pacific, Iceland, North Korea, and Indonesia. The filmmakers explore the science of volcanos, the cultural lore, and even psychological impact on a people of living in the shadow of an unpredictable beast. The result is a movie that is at once an ecological portrait, and at the same time, a meditation on what we as humans tell ourselves to understand our own microscopic place in the universe. Here’s what we took away from the new documentary, paired, of course, with some classic Herzog-ian commentary.

Everything is ephemeral.

“It is good [the volcanos] are here. The soil we are walking upon is not permanent, there is no permanence to what we are doing, no permanence to the efforts of human beings, no permanence to art, no permanence to science. There is something of a crest that is somehow moving, and it makes me fond of the volcano to know that our life, human life, animals, can only live and survive because the volcano is creating the atmosphere.”

The planet’s primordial beauty is mesmerizing.

“As dusk came, we made our way to the volcano. Looking into the magma at night, the interior of our planet reveals its strange beauty.”

For westerners, science is its own type of religion, used to understand the universe.

“In a way, this film started 10 years ago on Antarctica. I was doing a film on scientists on this continent that took me to Mount Erebus and active volcano, one of the three in the world, where you can look straight into the magma of the inner earth. It was on on Erebus, 12,500 feet above sea level that I met a strange and wonderful tribe of volcanologists, some of them overcome by altitude sickness. This close to the magma which frequently explodes we were briefed with the etiquette on how to deal with the stuff.”

For centuries societies have had their own magical relationship with volcanos.

“Obviously, there was a scientific side to our journey, but what we were really chasing was the magical side, the daemons, the new gods, this was the itinerary we had set for ourselves, no matter how strange things might eventually get. Here in the palace of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, dignitaries are tasked with reconciling the goddess of the ocean with the daemon of the volcano…This will be a reenactment of the sexual union between an ancient sultan and the queen of the sea.”

The people of the Vanuatu Archipelago in the South Pacific make sense of volcano’s impending doom through myth.

“Of all the many volcanos in Indonesia there is no single one that is not connected to a belief system. For the locals, all this volcanic landscape bears magical names. The night market of the ghosts. The flying foxes, the dancing place of the spirits.”

The culture of the Icelandic people were shaped by their understanding of the power of volcanos.

“These primordial occurrences influenced a sense of mythical poetry of the Icelanders. There is a text that defines the spirit of the people, it exists only in a single manuscript, for Iceland it is as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls are for Israel. The Codex, was given as a present to the King of Denmark by an Icelandic bishop in the 17th century, hence its name, the Royal Codex…. In the opening passage called the Prophecy of the Cyrus there is an apocalyptic vision of the end of the pagan gods. This seems to describe a huge volcanic event. “Neath the sea the land sinkith, the sun dimmith, from the heavens fall the fair bright stars, gushed forth steam and gutting fire, to very heavens soar the hurdling flames.”

In North Korea the volcano Mt. Paektu is considered the country’s birthplace, and is often pictured in imagery of rulers Kim Jong-il his father, Kim Il-sung

“It has been inactive for more than 1,000 years but it plays a huge role in the imagination of the people. For millennia, it was considered the magical birth place of the Korean nation. Today, the socialist government coopts this myth. This is the site of pilgrimages.”

Some villages on the Vanuatu Archipelago worship a God thought to be inspired by an American serviceman said to be born of the ashes of a nearby volcano.

“Similar to North Korea, [the Mount Yasur] volcano has created a new god, the name of the deity, John Frum who descended from the clouds, it is Friday night, the island celebrates his cult. Chief Isaac, of this John Frum village, tightly controls the dogma of the new faiths. Different denominations and even a schism in the church seems to have materialized, and so we were only allowed to speak to him and his son. He flies the stars and stripes because John Frum is an American who promises to return with copious cargos of consumer goods.”

Humans are obsessed with volcanous because they are callously indifferent to us.

“It is hard to take your eyes off the fire that burns deep under our feet, everywhere, under the crust of the continents and seabeds. 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.”

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