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Why We Can't Resist Volcanoes, According to Werner Herzog's Volcanologist

The volcano scientist behind (and front and center of) Herzog’s new documentary on how science mixes with magic, and the beautiful danger of volcanoes.

by Tim Maughan
Oct 28 2016, 4:30pm

Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer on Mount Yasur in Vanuatu. Image: Netflix

"The volcanoes I work on have been present throughout the 200,000 years that Homo sapiens has existed," volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer tells me. "Our ancestors got to know the volcanic landscapes well—they used their resources, especially the black obsidian lava for making stone tools, and likely revered the fiery craters. And, from time to time, they would have had to flee from some very violent eruptions. I think we carry an echo of those experiences today—perhaps that explains why we are all so enthralled by volcanoes."

It's an exploration of this enthrallment that forms the core of Into the Inferno, the latest film from legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog. It follows the director and Oppenheimer, a professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge, as they visit six active volcanoes around the world. Herzog is no newcomer to volcanoes; in 1977 he directed La Soufrière, in which he visits the island of Guadeloupe after it has been evacuated in anticipation of an eruption. In 2007 he met Oppenheimer on the rim of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the world's southernmost active volcano, while filming Encounters at the End of the World. As always, Herzog's trademark is to focus on the people and personalities within the subjects he's studying, and Oppenheimer certainly becomes one of these at times in Into the Inferno, filling the typically Herzogian role of the obsessive scientist. But it's clear that their journey was a mutual learning experience.

"Working together was a great pleasure and came very naturally, and I think we harness each other's talents and expertise rather well in the movie." he says. "I've long been fascinated by the intersections of volcanology with anthropology, archaeology, climate science and so on. But Werner's perspectives have certainly influenced how I think about art."

'For volcanologists with any interest in protecting populations, it is natural to want to understand cultures and beliefs and not simply waltz in with the latest monitoring technology and think that will fix everything.'

While much of the movie is breathtaking footage of gazing down into active cones or watching unstoppable lava flows consume landscapes, perhaps its most effective moments come when it quietly examines these intersections Oppenheimer mentions. In particular the tension between hard geological science and anthropology becomes one of Into the Inferno's most compelling themes. As Herzog himself says at one point during his narration, "obviously there was a scientific side to our journey, but what we were really chasing was the magical side."

At each of the sites they visit Oppenheimer and Herzog spend time with the local populations, learning how the volcanoes have dominated and shaped their cultures and histories as heavily as the landscapes their inhabit. They talk with former cannibal tribes in Indonesia, learn how the lava flows of Iceland forged Norse legends, and how North Korea's most famous volcano has been efficiently co-opted into state propaganda as "the sacred mountain of the revolution."

Perhaps most fascinating is the tale of a real life cargo cult on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, who believe that their volcano is a portal through which a mysterious American serviceman, John Frum, will return to the island to shower them with treasures (which Herzog describes in his usual deadpan narration as "consumer goods"). It's fascinating to watch Oppenheimer discuss this with the movement's leaders, but also a slightly uncomfortable experience: I found myself wondering about the ethical issues around scientific rationalism and traditional mythology being thrown together in this way. Was Herzog's lens offering a sort of exotic voyeurism, and was there a danger that comparing local customs with science could be condescending?

"Film-making does throw up ethical issues, for sure," says Oppenheimer when I put this to him. "As soon as you point a camera at someone, there is an ethical dimension to that. I am sure I can't cast off my own cultural baggage, but I don't feel there has to be a clash between 'scientific' and 'indigenous' interpretations, say, of volcanic phenomena.

"I wasn't trained in anthropology," he continues. "[But] while I come from a scientific background, I am based in a Geography department, which brings together specialists from the humanities and both natural and social sciences. It is a melting pot, and has given me broader research perspectives. For volcanologists with any interest in protecting populations living on volcanoes—and that counts I think for most of us—it is natural to want to understand cultures and beliefs and not simply waltz in with the latest monitoring technology and think that will fix everything."

Monitoring technology happens to be one of Oppenheimer's particular zones of expertise; after nearly three decades of working with volcanoes he's one of the planet's leading experts on tracking activity and predicting eruptions. The desire to not just watch but also forecast volcanic activity is clearly his passion, as shown in a strangely touching scene when he returns to one of his early warning devices in Indonesia--designed to track sulphur levels in the atmosphere--to find it still working years later.

Mt. Merapi, Indonesia

'I can't see that we will ever comprehend all the mysteries of the Earth, not least since some of them arise from random processes... And that does help to temper the hubris scientists can display from time to time.'

To Herzog's credit, his framing of both volcano mythology and science as the same human desire to understand and explain the destructiveness of the natural world is one of the movie's most effective devices. It's clear he sees both Oppenheimer and the tribal leaders he meets in the same light; their shared obsession an attempt to try and to—at times literally—stare into the center of the Earth to see how it works, even if that remains impossible.

"It is true—we are trying to sense something out of reach—miles beneath the Earth's surface," Oppenheimer says. "Essentially, all we have are indirect methods to get a picture of the subterranean architecture and machinations of a volcano. I am often humbled when I read the works of the pioneers of volcanology from a century or more ago. They posed the same questions we are asking today. I can't see that we will ever comprehend all the mysteries of the Earth, not least since some of them arise from random processes. What really piques my interest is when we observe a pattern emerging from apparent disorder--a recurrent blip in the monitoring data that must be telling us something fundamental about how volcanoes work. But it is seldom we can be certain of our interpretations. And that does help to temper the hubris scientists can display from time to time--so, indeed, no bad thing."

While this uncertainty makes for interesting philosophical discussion, for Oppenheimer the need to pursue understanding has a more immediate aim--saving lives and communities. "We can do a fair job of outlining future scenarios for how a volcano might behave, and what the consequences might be; and we have numerous tools for monitoring what is going on below the surface. But our knowledge of how volcanoes work is imperfect; we are unsure why some episodes of unrest on volcanoes lead to eruptions and others don't. This leaves quite a big gap between what scientists can say about a volcano's future and what civil protection authorities need in order to protect people. Imagine having to decide whether or not to evacuate 100,000 people from their homes for an indefinite period when the scientists explain they cannot be sure what will happen."

It's this uncertainty, Oppenheimer tells me, that despite our fascination with volcanoes, can lead those that live in their shadows to become understandably immune to their threat. "The authorities might evacuate people from the endangered zones, but if the refugees see that their properties remain intact for months, years, while they are living in shelters, it's easy to understand why some drift back to their villages--to tend to their farms and to resume life as normal as possible."

It's a theme Herzog explored before in La Soufrière, where he visits the volcano of the title on the island of Guadeloupe. In Into the Inferno Herzog plays back a clip of the one islander that refused to leave, a farmer who stayed behind with his cat and belongings (ultimately, the volcano didn't erupt). Similarly he shows us footage of Katia and Maurice Krafft, the French volcanologist couple who, after decades of famously filming flows and eruptions startlingly up close, died in a pyroclastic flow on Japan's Mount Unzen in 1991. Apparently scientists that spend all their lives around volcanoes can become complacent too.

"Unfortunately, it is these circumstances that lead to calamities on volcanoes because the largest eruptions can occur years after the first signs of unrest." says Oppenheimer. "This is exactly what happened at Mount Sinabung in Sumatra recently. When we filmed there, we entered the exclusion zone with official authorization and got what we needed as quickly as possible. I hardly took my eyes off the summit, a few kilometers away, and had the cars turned around for a rapid exit if needed. Driving through the supposedly evacuated villages it was immediately clear people were still living there--laundry was out on the lines. Later that month, several people were killed by pyroclastic flows from the volcano. It is tragic and it really underlines how people can become inured to threat."

Herzog and Oppenheimer. Image: Netflix

While this discussion of risk and uncertainty is one of the main messages of Into the Inferno, it feels at times as though Herzog is more interested in celebrating or even protecting this uncertainty rather than defeating it. At one point in the movie, where Oppenheimer manages to turn Herzog's camera on himself, he asks the director what attracts him to volcanoes. He replies that he gets a thrill from being reminded that the earth is constantly destroying and renewing itself, that there is "no permanence of soil, art, science, people." For Herzog, staring into the center of the earth isn't so much about understanding as it about, on the contrary, embracing the chaotic and unknown.

Into The Inferno premieres as part of the Cambridge Film Festival on 27th October and is available on Netflix starting October 28th.

Listen to an interview with Werner Herzog on Radio Motherboard:

An interview with Werner Herzog on Radio Motherboard

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