Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
The documentary "Into the Inferno" sums itself up in its opening moments. A gliding helicopter shot takes us across the Vanatu Archipelago in the Galapagos, over waves of ground that resemble dried black pudding, until we see a group of tiny figures on the crest of a mountain. The camera draws close to them, eventually peering over their shoulders to reveal what they're looking at: a gigantic pool of magma. Then comes a succession of long shots of the magma. The film is hypnotized by it.
So are all of the people profiled in this movie, which is directed by Werner Herzog but credited as "A film by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer." Oppenheimer is a Cambridge volcano expert, or volcanologist, a slim man with a kind face and voice. He serves as the on-camera guide for Herzog, interviewing fellow volcanologists as well as people who spend most of their lives living or working near active volcanoes, including a woman who works at a monitoring station and a group of archeologists digging up shards of bone preserved by cooled and hardened lava. ("Every single piece of bone is a keeper," Herzog intones over footage of a dig site, one of many bits of voice-over that sounds a lot funnier when he says it.)
Volcanoes are an ideal Herzog subject. His great theme is obsession. His filmography is filled with people who are obsessed with achieving a goal, learning all they can about a subject, or getting to the heart of a mystery. Not only do they seem not to care whether their obsession destroys them, obsession might be the fuel of their existence. At one point Herzog detours to show us documentary footage of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a married team of volcanologists. The sequence ends by telling us that they were killed by a fiery avalanche. This piece of information is conveyed with an undertone of respect, as well it should be. They died doing what they loved, which in Herzog's eyes amounts to a hero's death.
The many lengthy shots of erupting volcanoes, rivers of lava and pools of magma soon start to feel like obvious metaphors, not just for the single-mindedness of people whose lives revolve around volcanoes, but for Herzog's obsession with those same people, as well as for his obsessive personality generally, which seem unbearably self-regarding if he weren't such a witty, self-deprecating storyteller and guide. But these same shots are beautiful on their own terms, as spectacle. A big part of the appeal of films, fiction and nonfiction alike, is the chance to gawk at amazing things, in particular amazing things that might destroy us were we to encounter them in real life. Few natural phenomena are simultaneously as beautiful and terrifying—and therefore as inherently cinematic—as volcanic activity. Most people will see "Into the Inferno" as I did, on a small screen; I envy those who will see it on a movie screen, especially a big one, because this is a film where scale makes a difference. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger's camera always seems to be in just the right place, whether he's capturing volcanoes themselves or people talking about volcanoes while lava spews in the background behind them.