Watching a documentary by Werner Herzog is like spending time with a kindly uncle who just happens to have a side career making wildly original films about sex, death and grizzly bears. Into the Inferno might be the German maestro’s gentlest doc to date: an avuncular stroll around some of the world’s most notorious volcanoes in the company of Clive Oppenheimer, an enthusiastic vulcanologist at the University of Cambridge.
As ever with Herzog, the ostensible subject is just a jumping-off point to explore more profound matters. A trip to East Africa’s Rift Valley leads to musings on the origins of humanity. Another to Iceland leaves us asking questions about the impermanence of human civilization compared with geological time. Most fascinatingly, Herzog and Oppenheimer get a peek behind the concrete curtain of communist North Korea, where the rumbling Mount Paektu has become an important symbol of power to the regime.
Into the Inferno may be relatively minor Herzog—it’s sweet and rambling rather than laser-bolt intense like Fitzcarraldo or Grizzly Man. But it is enormously satisfying, filled with wisdom, insight and molten lava.