Director Werner Herzog doesn’t make cinéma vérité documentaries, nor does he conduct journalistic interviews. He likes to fiddle with the truth in films such as 1982’s ”Fitzcarraldo,” about an obsessed opera lover. In his 1999 manifesto, ”Minnesota Declaration,” Herzog wrote: ”There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”
Through the decades Herzog has toyed with his public persona as a fearless, death-defying, slightly crazed filmmaker who was rumored to have pulled a gun on leading man Klaus Kinski on the 1972 jungle set of ”Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” His own German-accented voiceover narration has become famous in its own right, and he was comfortable enough as an actor to make fun of himself in Zak Penn’s improvised 2004 mockumentary “Incident at Loch Ness,” among other fictional characters he has played on film.
And so he puts himself in front of the camera in “Into the Inferno,” along with Cambridge volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, whom Herzog met on an Antarctic volcano during “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007), his only documentary to earn an Oscar nomination. “Into the Inferno,” which is on the DOC NYC shortlist, could be his second.
When Herzog’s sales agent put “Into the Inferno” onto the market, Netflix quickly snapped up world rights to work with him for the first time. “He’s one of the greats,” said documentary czar Lisa Nishimura. “For him, the big appeal was being able to have a global partner because he is such a global figure in documentaries.”
True to form, Herzog visits volcanoes all over the world. He’s tough enough to hike close to the edge in a protective suit to look with a long lens into the magma of the inner Earth. However, he does not deliver on the title of his latest documentary and descend into live craters: Herzog is not foolish.
“I have never been attracted to danger,” he insists in our video interview, below. “Everybody thought at Mount Erebus in Antarctica, I’d go down in ropes. They were surprised when I didn’t want that. Something happens in the media. It’s not me. A certain stratum of my existence is only in perception. Yes, I am clinically sane.”
He’s been fascinated with volcanoes since his first Caribbean encounter, documented in “La Soufrière” in 1976. Over the years he and Oppenheimer flirted with shooting an IMAX fireworks extravaganza, but eventually preferred to to be more nimble and idiosyncratic. Thus “Into the Inferno” detours to explore volcano cults in Milanesia and North Korea, where a marching troop of hollow-eyed men worshipping at a misty volcano were not soldiers, but university students.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Herzog told me after the film’s debut in Telluride. “This kind of scrutiny into an unknown world has always fascinated me. In a way, the film sums up what I’ve done over decades.”
He and Oppenheimer explore the famous Toba volcano eruption in Indonesia, 74,000 years back in time. “It was so gigantic, that within our recorded history of volcanic sediments, there’s nothing comparable to this one,” Herzog said. “We have reason to believe the Toba eruption almost wiped out the human race. It created a lake 100 kilometers in diameter. Imagine a column of ashes and pumice, 50,000 cubic kilometers of pumice, particles obscure the sky and distribute around the entire planet. There’s evidence of this even in the surrounding countries and in ice cores in Greenland and Antartica, everywhere in the world. There were many years when it was very dark. Photosynthesis, which is the basis of our food chain, was somehow disrupted. This is what almost threatened the human race.”
Admittedly attracted to primordial forces, Herzog recounts with some glee the places that could similarly explode the Earth’s thin crust in 20,000 or 20 million years, from a few gigantic volcanoes in Bolivia to Yellowstone National Park and the Bay of Naples, home to Mount Vesuvius. “It is nature,” he said. “We are right on top of it. And the kind of force and dynamics and raw power of it has a strange beauty. You can’t take your eyes away, like when you are looking at your campfire or fireplace at home. It’s something primordial.”