Werner Herzog Really, Really Likes Volcanoes

We caught up with the legendary filmmaker to talk about 'Into the Inferno,' his gorgeous new documentary about volcanoes, poetry, and North Korea.

James Yeh

James Yeh

Illustration by Dane Patterson

The idea of Werner Herzog in North Korea kind of sells itself, but the legendary renegade filmmaker's Into the Inferno delivers on so much more than that concept. Herzog's latest documentary sees him journeying inside the isolated, notoriously guarded dictatorship among other far-flung locales like Indonesia, Iceland, Ethiopia, and Antarctica to explore volcanoes and the cultures, mythologies, and scientists that surround them.

Having scratched his internet itch with this spring's enjoyable if not-quite-transcendent Lo and Behold, the 74-year-old LA-based, Bavaria-born filmmaker is firmly back in his natural element: the elements. The result is poetic, stirring, and gorgeous, a sweeping vision of fiery apocalypse and Herzog's finest documentary since 2007's memorable Encounters at the End of the World. There are numerous arresting moments, particularly a series of astonishing, seemingly extraterrestrial images by—and of—late French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as they stroll dangerously near rivers of flowing lava, like enormous orange-and-black snakes at certain moments, geysers and waterfalls of fire during others. (The couple, Herzog notes, would be killed by a pyroclastic flow, giving these scenes a haunting quality reminiscent of Grizzly Man.)

This complex beauty continues when we are shown a group of young men marching and "rejoicing" in the fog atop Mount Paektu in North Korea. "We thought they were soldiers, but they were university students," Herzog notes, dryly. "But in all this display of the masses," he says, after witnessing a stadium full of orchestrated performers, "I find an underlying emptiness and solitude."

The most amusing, and in some ways characteristic, moment occurs early in the film. Herzog is perched at the lip of Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica, with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whose 2011 book Eruptions That Shook the World was an inspiration for the film. As clouds of smoke float up behind them, the two bundled men calmly discuss the inherent risk of studying volcanoes. "I would love to see it from close up," Herzog admits. "But since it is too dangerous, it would be silly... I'm the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane, taking all precautions."

Then there's an explosion like a gunshot from within the crater and the implacable Herzog sort of shifts, releasing the small rocks that had been in his gloved hands. "Yeah, a good swoosh," he remarks to Oppenheimer, smiling. Unfazed, he barely regards the threat. "Let it come at us. We'll face it, and step aside," he chuckles, echoing another volcanologist's instructions for how to properly deal with lava "bombs"—fiery fragments ejected from the volcano. In moments like these, we see Late Herzog at his best, still adventurous after all these years, but also mellowed out, bemusedly accepting what nature brings and following wholly reasonable directions for surviving to film another day.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Herzog over the phone. Hearing his deep, distinctive, Teutonic-inflected voice over the phone is everything you would imagine and hope for it to be.

Werner Herzog: Good morning, this is Werner Herzog. Where are you, physically?

VICE: I am physically in Brooklyn. What about yourself, LA?
Yes, I am in Los Angeles.

So now that your newest documentary is about volcanoes instead of the internet, is there any part of you that will miss being asked questions about Pokémon Go and Kanye West videos?
Well, that's very ephemeral what was going on and just completely disappeared. Of course, I have to learn very quickly there's a huge difference between an interview with print media and something that is going directly online. For example, about the rapper's video, I had about half an hour of very intelligent conversation about the internet, and at the very end the lady said to me, "Oh, I'm showing you a video, can you immediately comment?" And I looked at it, and I found it interesting, and I made a few, very brief comments—60 seconds—and that was the only thing that really was going out. And Pokémon, of course, is my way to poke fun at a phenomenon like that.

In a similar way, I do remember I was asked—how do you call it? It's like radio online—how do you call it, blog?

A podcast, maybe?
A podcast, yes. I said, "I don't see you, I don't see you." I thought it was something like Skype, but it was only radio. And now I asked something, which was clearly made up by me, "How do I find you on the internet?" They said, "Just google us at this address." And then I said, "How, for heaven's sake, do I hack into Google?" And there was a scream on the other end. They didn't stop screaming for a long time.

In your first film about volcanoes, La Soufrière, you said that you weren't so interested in the volcano itself, but rather in the handful of men who refused to evacuate for an eruption, who chose, effectively, to wait for death. This time around, the actual volcanoes as phenomena occupy a larger focus. How has your view of volcanoes changed over the years?
Well, [volcanoes] are so distinct. Each one has its own character, its own distinctive marks. And of course many of them are dormant. Ninety percent or so are dormant. So, no, it has been a fascination. Because what's going on under us is so raw, and so powerful. This kind of fascination, in fact, has attracted many of the viewers. When you see the lava flows or eruptions—it's just a huge event. It's very, very good for cinema.

To me, volcanoes in the film also serve as a kind of apocalyptic promise. And yet you also mention a "fondness" for them. I'm reminded of what you once said about the jungle, while shooting Fitzcarraldo, how it was full of obscenity and death, but how you also liked it a great deal, beyond your better judgment.
I said, "But I love it"—I'm speaking of the jungle now—"against my better judgment." [ Laughs] That was a very pointed remark that I wanted to pass on. And of course volcanoes have also created the atmosphere that all of us need for breathing and survival.

I was going to ask if volcanoes are obscene to you in any way.
No, no. They're just magnificent, and there's something awe-inspiring about them.

So it's a less complicated feeling.
When you mention obscene, I use the term "obscenity" in context with the jungle. You have to see it in the right environment. At the time I was with the actor Klaus Kinski, and he would embrace a tree, and fornicate with the tree, and scream around it, how erotic the jungle was. And I said to him, "No, Klaus. In my opinion, the jungle is not erotic; it's just obscene."

[Laughs] Perhaps having Kinski there could make anything obscene.
[Long pause] In a way, yes.

The theme of nature's disregard for humanity is one you've returned to. And yet there are so many cultures in the film that craft origin stories and narratives around volcanoes, and you yourself have created quite an impressive body of work about nature and humanity's tentative or even impossible relationship to it. If nature seemed to care about us, do you think we'd lose interest? Is there something about nature's indifference that compels us to obsess over it further, like an emotionally unavailable boyfriend or girlfriend?
Uh, I don't think so, but it's a very interesting question that you are posing. I've never heard anyone speaking like that. I'd really have to think a little bit about it—let's not argue about it in this interview, but it's a very fine idea that I should pursue.

My own lasting impression of the film is of a fiery vision of the apocalypse and humanity's precarious and temporary position, standing at the lip of the volcano, these sorts of ants in hazmat suits looking down. Do you feel this is a description of our essential relationship to nature?
Not necessarily, but when you look at a huge volcano, it just shows how tiny and insignificant we are. And it also shows that the volcano—the magma, boiling all around us, this entire planet—and is uninterested in what we are doing. What the retarded reptiles and vapid humans are doing on the thin crust around it. And of course we have learned to see ourselves in different, new perspectives since we have had the Rosetta Mission on a comet, and things like that. When you look back on planet Earth, it's a tiny speck somewhere out there. It gives us a different sense of proportion.

In the film you also show a certain mundanity of human survival, for instance in how the scientists instruct you how to avoid lava "bombs": to keep your attention faced toward the lava lake, look up, and step away. I was reminded of the fire-safety technique taught to children in the US: Stop, drop, and roll. Is that our only recourse, when faced with the destructive indifference of nature, the inevitability of catastrophe, to act like a well-behaved child?
Well, that's of course a funny little moment in the film. And it applies only to, for example, Mount Erebus, where the magma lake would explode and there are these projectiles flying up. And you could see them coming up and you step out of the way. Normally when there's a big eruption, there's no way of stepping to the side. You will be airborne.

"I said [to the North Korean officials], 'I give you three guarantees: my honor, my faith, and my handshake.' And they said, 'OK.'"

How difficult was it to convince the North Korean government to let you in? You've spoken of forging documents and carrying bolt cutters. Did that inform your dealings with North Korean officials?
It took about a year before we had the permit. It was in conjunction with an ongoing program between Cambridge and the North Korean government. Still, it was about a year, and you better not come with a forged passport. For example, the cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger wanted to bring his drone, but disassembled in various parts and spread over various pieces of luggage. And I said, "No, you're not going to do that." And thank God I dissuaded him—shortly after we left, a young American was arrested because he stole a propaganda banner, I think, from the lobby of a hotel, and he was sentenced to 15 years. A drone over Mount Paektu right at the Chinese border, heavy military presence—you're immediately into the terrain of espionage. So you just don't do it.

But I developed a very straightforward relationship with them. Once I filmed something I wasn't supposed to, and they wanted me to erase it. And we tried and we couldn't, because the data management was very complex. And after two days, they wanted to take the entire hard drive, two days worth of shooting. And I said, "Please don't do that. I can guarantee that I'm not going to use this footage." And they said, "Guarantee, what do you mean by that?" And I said, "I give you three guarantees, my honor, my faith, and my handshake." And they said, "OK." And of course I have not used this short moment that I filmed and shouldn't have filmed. And they understood I was not joking with them.

Throughout your work, I think there's a real revelry in language, even poetry. One example is at the end of The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, with the fantastic Robert Walser quote. Here, I noticed it in the "magical names" the Indonesian cultures gave to certain volcanoes: The Night Market of the Ghosts.
And the Dancing Hall of the Spirits. Yeah.

How important is the poetry of language to your work?
Ha, well, you can see it practically in all my films. In here, when you hear that one part in particular to the Royal Codex, the Icelandic sacred book of their mythologies, one single manuscript in existence. It was so important for the Icelandic people, when the Danish returned it after it in their possession for 300 years or so, the Danish sent it with their biggest battleship accompanied by a fleet of ships, and the half the population of Iceland was at the pier for a week, waiting for it and chanting the Edda songs and reciting the poetry. So if you all of a sudden see this text in front of you—it's like the Dead Seas Scrolls for Israel. Poetry of great, great beauty. And I recite from it. And the way I'm reciting it, it's not big emotional recitation—it has a certain gravitas. And I think it is good that it's my own voice and not a slick voice of a very trained actor, with perfect English pronunciation. Of course my pronunciation, I know, is awful, but it's OK. I can live with it.

OK, the last question: Into the Abyss, Into the Inferno—will there be a third one? Into the Oblivion, perhaps, or Into the Chaos ?
[Laughs] No, no—for God's sake, no. It was more a coincidence. I had a different title, and nobody liked it. And then all of a sudden it popped up, Into the Inferno, and everyone jumped at it and found it so wonderful. So I said, "OK, I give you the title if everyone wanted it," and everybody was enthusiastic about it. No, I'm not going to do yet another "Into" something.

So it's not a trilogy?
No, no. Then it would be Aguirre 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 or so. You won't see that from me. It's not going to happen.

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Illustration by Dane Patterson.

Into the Inferno is available on Netflix on October 28.