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Talking to Werner Herzog about volcanoes and death

We catch up with the iconic director to discuss staying true to his word in North Korea, fabrication on Facebook and why our generation gets him

Whether he’s exploring our digital dependency (Lo and Behold), capital punishment (Into the Abyss) or the straight-up bliss of evil, 74-year-old moviemaking icon Werner Herzog has always looked deep into our collective soul. He’s also fascinated with the primordial fire – all those majestically fiery, lava-filled craters, along with the noxious fumes and massive eruptions that generally take us mortals by surprise. In the 1970s, he visited Guadeloupe after it had been evacuated for fear of an imminent eruption, seeking out the daredevil islanders who paid no heed to the distress signals. And in his 2007 doc Encounters at the End of the World, he visited the southernmost active volcano on earth, Mount Erebus, in the company of volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer.

The friendship sparked then and there between Herzog and Oppenheimer served as the spark for Into the Inferno, an ethnographic survey of some of the most compelling volcano sites on Earth (from North Korea and Iceland to the Vanuatu archipelago), which co-director Oppenheimer aptly describes as “a demented volcano movie.” Structured as vignettes, Into the Inferno looks beyond the clouds of billowing smoke and searing flames (though make no mistake – such footage is also on the agenda) to investigate the, um, very imaginative belief systems taken up by those living in their midst.

As we’ve come to expect from Herzog films, we’re introduced to characters engaged in the wildest of pursuits, from the world’s greatest fossil hunter to an Indonesian carpenter building a Roman Catholic church shaped like a chicken. It’s all very aspirational and enough to make the most profane viewer want to rekindle with the sacred. In the lead-up to Into the Inferno’s worldwide Netflix premiere, we got Werner on the line to chat about why National Geographic wouldn’t have adopted his methodology, how he came to bond with North Koreans, and why our generation gets him.

You often wrestle with nature’s utter indifference to “vapid humans”. Early on in Inferno, you allude to seven Indonesian farmers who were killed by a volcano at the exact location where you and your crew had found yourselves a week earlier...

Werner Herzog: Well, when you look out at the universe, and we have recently seen photos from a space probe on a comet, planet Earth is a tiny spec somewhere among other dots. We somehow have a different picture of ourselves – of how significant we are compared to the universe. Does the universe even care about what we are doing there? I think we have to shift our perspective because of new observations and findings.

You include breathtaking footage shot by the late volcanophiles Katia and Maurice Krafft. That immediately reminded me of the late wildlife activists whose story you recounted in the documentary Grizzly Man. You once described the bear activists as having “a tragic misunderstanding of wild nature.” Do you think some people simply aren’t willing to accept the impermanence of human existence?

Werner Herzog: Well, that’s a fundamental question. The Kraffts have given us phenomenal footage – we have never seen anything of such beauty, intensity and danger. Similarly, [Grizzly Man protagonist] Timothy Treadwell has given us footage of grizzly bears that nobody has ever done and probably ever will – not images of that intensity. The Kraffts simply challenged their own luck too closely, almost all the time. They spoke about this in public, saying that 98 per cent of all Frenchmen die in their beds. They did not want that. And of course, they were consumed by a pyroclastic flow of 850 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) coming at them like an avalanche of heated gases, searing flames and then they were gone. It’s a decision they made. They wanted to die like this – not that they had an ambition to die, I’m certain.

This globetrotting survey of magma-filled craters is grounded in science, as the presence of your volcanologist co-director makes clear, but it’s also quickly apparent that you’re chasing the magical and the intangible. What’s your biggest takeaway about the various communities you encountered living in the shadow of volcanoes?

Werner Herzog: It’s clear to those who live under the volcano that nothing in our existence is of any permanence. You have to live with it. Of course, almost all of them create some mythologies: new Gods or demons or spirits – including Mount Paektu in North Korea [Ed’s Note: which has long played a mythical role as the birthplace of the Korean nation], where the president and founding father of Communist North Korea became president, then president for life, and after his death, president for eternity. There’s some sort of new, almost godlike figure created by the dynamic of the volcano.

Or in the Pacific island of Vanuatu, where a mythical American G.I. named John Frum allegedly appeared out of the volcano and brought all the good stuff from consumer society to the people – chewing gum, refrigerators, a jukebox and maybe a Cadillac. They dance at night on Fridays and pray to him and it helps them to return with copious cargos.

I read about how you relate to North Koreans because of your upbringing in a divided, poverty-stricken, post-war Germany. Have you always felt that connection to North Koreans?

Werner Herzog: No, it dawned on me when we were introduced to our North Korean counterparts and they wanted to know who I was. Some of our guards had seen my films, but the scientists didn’t know much. I told them I grew up in a country that was destroyed and divided by the war, and that I had travelled on foot one day around my entire country along its borders. I wanted to hold the country together for unity. Many people were moved by the story. One of the deepest quests of North Koreans, apparently, is reunification. It’s very deeply embedded. So from that moment on, they really started to take me seriously and respect me. I was allowed to film scenes that were not within our catalogue – in the subway, in the kindergarten, I filmed God knows where, and it was all not within the program I was allowed to do.

And from what I understand, you pushed your luck a bit too far.

Werner Herzog: I once filmed something I was not supposed to, and I was stopped and asked to erase it. We couldn’t, because it was such complex management of data. So they wanted to confiscate the entire hard drive with seven days of shooting on it. I said, please don’t do that, but I can guarantee to you I won’t use this footage, which I shouldn’t have taken in the first place. They asked me how I could guarantee it, and I told them I could give them three guarantees: my honour, my faith and my handshake. So they shook my hand and they knew I wouldn’t use it.

“I’m always trying to scrutinize and dig deep into the soul of human beings and what constitutes raw, wild nature” – Werner Herzog

From La Soufrière and your Antarctica doc Encounters at the End of the World to a minor plot point in your upcoming fiction film Salt and Fire, volcanoes feature prominently in your filmography. Why is that?

Werner Herzog: There’s something so cinematic about them! They have such an incredible beauty and also a dynamic. You cannot take your eyes off them. They’re very mysterious and, of course, there are always incredible stories around volcanoes created by those who live in their shadows. In Into The Inferno, you see footage you’ve never seen before… I mean, you think it’s impossible, what you are seeing.

You’ve said that viewers in Argentina or Bangladesh familiar with your work would instantly recognize Into the Inferno as something that came from you. So many (me included) have written at length about what, in their opinion, makes a film “Herzogian”, but I’d love to hear your take on it, straight from the horse’s mouth!

Werner Herzog: For starters, I’m always trying to scrutinize and dig deep into the soul of human beings and what constitutes raw, wild nature. Into the Inferno is not a film National Geographic would have made. Try to imagine National Geographic filming in the same countries and locations. Just figuring out what they would have done and seeing my film, that expresses very clearly what I’m after. Something different, probably deeper, humanistically.

Also, I have worked in this profession for half a century now, and looking at some of my stuff – and I don’t watch my films much – but I kind of recognize that this might be something that all comes from one guy. As when you watch films by Buñuel, you can tell somehow pretty much right away that it must be the Spaniard. Same with Kurosawa. All you need is 60 seconds of a film and you can tell. So in a way, I see that there’s some sort of a common aesthetic, common curiosities and sense of awe. The films belong together like a family series.

While so many young directors today struggle to find their audience, you’re one of the rare filmmakers who enjoys cross-generational appeal – with a particularly strong fan base among a younger audience. Why do you think that is?

Werner Herzog: Well, I do believe when you look at all that’s going on with Facebook, everything is somehow embellished and structured and fabricated. The fabrication of self is a new form of presentation of self on the Internet. And somehow, apparently, young people have a collective ability to recognize a person who has a certain amount of authenticity. You see, I moved a huge steamboat with primitive tools over a mountain in the jungle of Peru, I hypnotized a whole cast in a feature film for somnambulistic effect, I travelled on foot from Munich to Paris when an old lady who was some sort of a mentor was dying, I did a film on a volcano back in 1976 which was about to explode, and on and on and on. So there’s something authentic, which somehow is sensed and understood. That’s probably why there’s some sort of attention from those we call Millennials. Because they all seem to know and sense that representation of self is very inauthentic. And I’m speaking in the sum of things.

So many of your films have tackled how nature can be ruthless and unsentimental, but you’ve also explored how humans don’t need any help from the natural world to engage in monumental acts of self-sabotage. I’d love to get your thoughts on the upcoming U.S. election, as someone who’s now lived in America for nearly two decades.

Werner Herzog: Well, I do watch the world of politics with great attention, and I watched all the debates. It’s very, very fascinating how new figures are entering to the arena that we hadn’t thought would be possible. But let’s just say that frankly speaking, I’m not really worried. I think collectively, American voters are more intelligent than opinion polls would suggest.

Into the Inferno premieres globally 28 October on Netflix.