Herzog Vs. the Volcano

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“Herzog Vs. the Volcano”
A Review of Into the Inferno by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, NR
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

            “Extinction is the rule; survival is the exception” – Carl Sagan

            Into the Inferno opens on a barren landscape, filmed high into skies. As the camera pan up over the credits, the audience discovers they are on the edge of an enormous volcano. The view goes up over the black horizon into the caldera where thousands feet of straight below the fiery, bubbling mantle of the Earth is exposed. Director and narrator Warner Herzog tells us that this is one of only three places on the planet where the bowls of the planet open to reveal its secrets. This introduction – easily one of the best cinematic sequences of the year – suggests many things: the endless curiosity of humanity, the inevitability of death despite our struggles, the role of cinema in society, the madness of Herzog himself, or perhaps just a really beautiful shot. It could be any one of these…or all…or none. This is the genius of Herzog, the best documentarian working today. He finds the most unique corners of the human experience, then allows them to sit in majesty for mankind to endlessly brood.  Contemplation is one of the chief joys of being human.
            Herzog has had a special affinity for volcanos since his earliest career as a filmmaker, including Salt and Earth, a fictional film he directed also debuting this year. His guide to volcanology is Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, a British scientist Herzog met while filming Encounters at the End of the World. They struck up an instant friendship over a common curiosity and now travel the world together. While there is plenty of science, Herzog is more interested with the “magical” side of these gateways into the Earth, a fancy post-modern term for “religious.” In the Vanuatu village of Endu, Chief Mael Moses believes that spirits live in volcano and that foreign tourists were responsible for an eruption that occurred in 1968. In Ethiopia, volcanic soil has preserved the bones of a human nearly a hundred millennia old, attracting an eccentric Berkley professor who sports a Giants hat in 120 degree weather. Most frighteningly, Communist dictator Kim Il-sung claimed that the Korean people were born from Paektu Mountain, a huge volcano with a lake in its crater, and builds a cult of personality that would have shocked even George Orwell.
            The one thing that unites all these volcanos is apocalyptic destruction: the true nature of the Universe is revealed through the decimation of all things. To prevent this, shamans offer rituals and songs to placate the gods. Scientists too try to invent new technologies that hope to read signs of impending doom. Oppenheimer proudly displays a gas spectrometer he built that saved twenty thousand lives by measuring the amount of sulfur dioxide on the mountain. “I haven’t seen it in two years,” he smiles. “It’s my baby.” Neither priest nor professor, however, can stop the inferno when it chooses to rise. Chief Moses soberly expresses his belief that one day Mt. Ambrym will erupt and consume the village. Mainstream religions are tempted by this attitude as well. Paganism and pantheism alike agree that one day the world will end with total destruction, either through Ragnarok or anatta. This nihilism is the center of all Herzog films. Nature simply does care about our interests. It was there before; it will be there after.
            Yet despite Herzog’s bleak interpretation, he does not impose his beliefs on the audience. Secretly, he himself does believe it, for there is far too much wonder in the world for it to mean nothing. In the face of such natural beauty true atheism is impossible. Man needs myths and rituals, and even science can become a philosophy. The answer to this paradox of heart – the finality of death and the beauty of life – is found in Jesus Christ. He did not embrace the world, nor did He destroy it. He perfected it. He enter into death, then conquered it. Consider the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Easter sermon:

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

If extinction is the rule, why are we here at all? Centuries before Sagan, the Angelic Doctor recognized that if there was infinite time, then the inferno should have already consumed us all. Yet, we are here. For the light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out.” Like Herzog, we can look at the volcano with terror and wonder. With Christ, we can smile and walk away, safe in the knowledge that it is not the end.  

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on  November 2nd, 2016.