Infernal Affairs: Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer on Into the Inferno

October 28, 2016


By José Teodoro

A giddily digressive amalgamation of travelogue, anthropology, and scientific bromance, Into the Inferno may not exactly break new ground for Werner Herzog…

…but its maundering meditation on the role of volcanoes in geological history and the human psyche is a worthy addition to the increasingly prolific septuagenarian’s filmography nonetheless. Part of the film’s freshness is attributable to the collaboration of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, whose participation in the project was sufficient to earn him a shared “film by” credit and whose relatively earnest on-screen presence pleasantly contrasts Herzog’s occasional flights of hyperbole—of which you might detect some examples in the transcript below.


I will refrain from detailing the locations, interviewees, and themes of Into the Inferno since Herzog and Oppenheimer offered plenty of exposition during our conversation. I will, however, confirm that, while this globetrotting documentary is fundamentally about people and their stories, its images of active volcanoes are so astonishing they are practically science fiction: it is a glorious irony that what sprouts from the interior of our planet should appear so unearthly.

Into the Inferno will be available everywhere on Netflix today, October 28th. I spoke with Herzog and Oppenheimer in September, when the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

José Teodoro: I’m curious about the nature of your collaboration. You share a “film by” credit for Into the Inferno. I sense this isn’t quite the same as crediting the two of you as co-directors.

Werner Herzog: Yes, I would be cautious about co-directorial. That “film by” credit is followed by “directed by Werner Herzog.” Directing is something very specific, while the collaboration took place on a much broader plane, meaning that the film is based to some degree on Clive Oppenheimer’s book that he published a few years ago, Eruptions That Shook the World, which offered a perspective that I liked. Clive Oppenheimer brought us to North Korea, which is something I never would have managed. He brought us to Ethiopia, to the scientists there, who were excavating human fossils. He brought us to Indonesia, where he had been roaming the landscape since he was a 19-year-old teenager. So there is something deeper than the technicality of directing a movie. There is a kind of curiosity and spirit that is pervading the film and that we share. On the question of what will his credit be, I always said that it will be “a film by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer.” But, of course, directed by me. Because directing is how do you do camera and how do you do editing and how do you put music and how you write commentary and things like that. Minor things. That is why the very first credit you see is the one for the two of us. It also shows respect and friendship. You do that among friends.

JS: That camaraderie is woven into the film, I think. It sets a tone.

WH: Sure. Friendship leaves a footprint.


JT: How was the project initiated?

Clive Oppenheimer: We’d met when Werner was filming Encounters at the End of the World in Antarctica. We discussed ideas in very vague terms. I didn’t think he were finished with volcanoes after Guadalupe and after Erebus. My book was the trigger-point where I could send him a copy and say, “Is it time to get serious about this?”

WH: And I immediately responded with, “Yes! That’s the time!”

CO: I’d wanted to be involved in making a film for a very long time. I’d felt there was an authenticity lacking in many of the volcano documentaries I’d seen, which always focused on the same narrative of doom and gloom and pyrotechnics. As far as the nature of the collaboration goes, that became clearer once we started shooting in North Korea. It turned out to be a very natural, easy process. It felt like a genuine partnership in choosing where we would go, who we would interview. Then, of course, a lot of magic is worked in the editing suite.

WH: What may be interesting is that for some time we were contemplating an IMAX film. We came to the conclusion that IMAX is a phenomenal tool, but the narrative forms are limited. It would have been more about what we called “the fireworks.” You cannot do an IMAX film on North Korea’s unification of propaganda and things like this. You cannot have an IMAX film of conversations about a cargo cult in the Pacific. The film would have had to be much shorter and basically reduced to the fireworks, whereas we always felt the real source of fascination was in how do volcanoes shape belief systems, the demons and the new gods, for people who live under the volcano.

JT: Which is something that links Into the Inferno to Encounters at the End of the World. We come to behold this incredible spectacle, but we stay for the real encounter, which is with these misfits who for various reasons trickle down to the bottom of the planet. Into the Inferno features some truly astonishing images, but it’s finally about people—many people, in fact, even if some are mere fragments found in a desert.

WH: You will see spectacular images, the likes of which you will never lay eyes on again. Easily!


CO: I would say another point of reference is Lessons of Darkness, Werner’s film of the fires in Kuwait. It’s very visual, but it also has a very strong narrative structure built around chapters.

WH: It sums up a lot of what I have done, that one. In a way it’s like drawing a line under text, summing up fascinations and subjects I have explored over time. And 40 years before Into the Inferno I made a film on a volcano in the Caribbean [La Soufrière]. So this is something that has come back at me again.

JT: I’m always curious about how you locate such consistently compelling subjects. Did you interview a lot of other people who didn’t make it into the film?

WH: Not really. In Indonesia maybe a little bit, but we were focused on what we wanted to do. And, of course, in Ethiopia we immediately focused on this scientist from the University of California, Dr. Tim White. He’s such a phenomenal character. Yet as exuberant as he is you will always hear him talking about serious science as well. He’s not just a showman. Those are the characters I like to have in my film. Like the local people in Vanuatu who created a new cargo cult. The mythical American John Frum has become their god. I think in Vanuatu we did not speak to anyone apart from the three people who are speaking in the film.

CO: It was mostly by design, with a little bit of serendipity along the way. We knew at certain locations we wanted to look for human origins and gain a deep-time perspective, but then also come to the contemporary world and discuss how you determine volcanic risk, the lingering uncertainties, taking in the ontologies and belief systems along the way—and having some pyrotechnics.

WH: I do spot the real characters quickly. I immediately focus on them. When you look at the excavations in Ethiopia you see at least 20 archeologists working. This one [White] stood out. Of course, he was the leader of this entire scientific expedition, but had he been a boring scientist he would not have been in the film. Also fascinating is this Ethiopian scientist and historian who digs up the manufacturing site where apparently there was a workshop for creating obsidian blades. How we speaks about early humans!


CO: He’s very passionate.

WH: Yes, he even kisses the ground. He loves what he’s doing, and this ground is so important for his insights. Clive asks him, “What you’re finding here is us, but 100,000 years back in time—will we have another 100,000 years?” He gives a very remarkable answer. He says in his opinion, looking at the long-long-long deep history, and looking at what is coming at us, in about 1,000 years we will enter a very critical phase, where it will be determined whether we will survive as a species. Of course, this all depends on how we learn from our mistakes and how we deal with our own planet and our resource bases.

JT: I think some would say 1,000 years is quite optimistic.

CO: It’s not just about a time-span; it’s about the quality of life that we have.

WH: Our civilization has become more fragile, in part due to the internet, because too much is dependent and connected to the internet. If that goes down for whatever reason—it could even be because of a huge volcanic event or a sun flare or whatever, you just name it—our electrical grid is ruled by the internet. Our water supply, our food distribution, our communications systems, everything. Even on the international space station, to make a phone call from one module to the other end, a mere hundred feet away: it connects via the internet. We saw this in New York City with the hurricane. My wife was there and there was no drinking water. You couldn’t flush your toilet. When the internet is down, your water supply is going to be down. You cannot make any financial transactions anymore. You cannot buy a hamburger at the hamburger joint because the cash register functions via the internet. Dependence on the internet is too intense. There’s a certain danger in that. It has to be well thought over how we would decentralize things and have separate units functioning independently. It’s just too new a phenomenon. Even police, with their radio, when you call them, it’s all internet-based.

[Our dependence on the internet is among the subjects of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which premiered at Sundance last January.]


JT: So many of your films carry one sort of apocalyptic vision or another. The films rarely feel despairing, but I wonder if, as you get older, you feel despair over the subject matter of your films.

WH: Not at all. Apocalyptic: we should be cautious with the term. Yes, some of my films have a clear vision as to how we endanger our own existence. It’s some sort of a part of a worldview. But “apocalyptic” doesn’t mean that I’m a doomsday prophet or whatever. We should panic right away? Absolutely not so. I’m not a pessimist at all.

JT: I think something I’ve gleaned from your body of work, and what is explicitly conveyed in Into the Inferno, is the idea that we can regard history as a series of small apocalypses. If you were confined to the spaces where some of the eruptions described in the film occur, I suspect you would feel like the world is coming to an end.

WH: In fact these aren’t even local things. The Toba explosion in Southeast Asia was a stupendously monumental event that obscured the sky of the entire planet for a decade. It went everywhere.

CO: Cause and effect is always something that we’re trying to understand in science and geoscience. We see these mass extinctions where something like 95% of the fossil record disappears. You see this same phenomena in boom-bust economics and many others areas. We try to piece together what are the triggers, what are the factors involved. With volcanoes very big events can alter the climate in a way that can hit food production. Which would affect so many of us. I mean, I’m finished. As soon as the supermarket closes up I can’t grow enough food to feed myself and my family.

WH: You cannot hunt and forage in Central Park! [Laughs]

CO: I’m vegetarian anyway. So we are very vulnerable. It’s not just the internet.

WH: It is a different type of vulnerability. The web of collective existence is more fragile than before. And because of that self-reliant homestead farming communities like the Amish have a much better chance. Or, for example, cockroaches or retarded reptiles have a better chance than us.

JT: But, given that you value your lives and careers, the world and your families, these ideas we’re discussing don’t cause you to feel fear?

CO: I’m struck by the fact that we’re still here. There have been many theories about how eruptions and ice ages and so on nearly finished us off. We clearly are a very adaptable, resilient species. What we wanted to get across in the movie is that we do carry an echo of those earlier catastrophes. That’s a part of our makeup today. Looking forward, I don’t have an apocalyptic view. I can feel pretty pessimistic about how things are looking geopolitically, but nature has a huge indifference to all that. Honestly, looking forward 100,000 years is fine, but if I had a time machine and could go forwards or backwards, I would choose to go backwards. That’s somehow more tangible to me, to know where we came from.

JT: What about you, Werner? Forwards or backwards?

WH: I’m heading into the unknown! Forward, from now on. I’m soldiering on!

JT: And you remain very prolific. What about future collaborations? Is there any way in which you two could work together again?

WH: If there was such a scientific project that would suit such a collaboration, I would be happy. Yes, when you say prolific I have done a lot, but I am not a workaholic or a hectic person. The thing is: the system of distribution as it used to be was not quick or adaptive enough for my output. This is why Netflix is a blessing. They will push a button and in 190 countries this film will become available. And it will be out in theatres, though not too many. Theatrical release has its limitation when at the same moment you can download it via the internet. Long live the internet! Because it is fast.

Teodoro: Let’s hope it holds together.