By Gregory Crofton
The best sections of Werner Herzog’s new Netflix documentary “INTO THE INFERNO,” come from the footage shot by two French volcanologists, the married couple Katia and Maurice Krafft.
Glorious opera music accompanies a scientist wearing a heat protective silver suit and walking awkwardly on black lava next to a river of quickly flowing molten rock. It’s a striking image, surely science fiction. But in reality, the Kraffts died in 1991 studying a volcano and collecting such pictures.
Herzog puts it best.
“They were both instantly killed by a pyroclastic flow in Japan together with 41 other people,” he says in the film. “This is the very avalanche of super-heated gases that killed them. What is rushing down this slope at over 100 mph has a temperature of more than 800 degrees fahrenheit.”
When his brilliant narration and writing combine with his raspy German-English voice over, the resulting cinema is often funny and poignant, and it’s usually equally informative. Herzog educates his audiences deceptively because learning is only one of the essential elements that make up his exquisite films. Character, potent humor, shocking natural and man-made images make up the rest.
Completely unexpected is how the “INTO THE INFERNO” camera crew got invited to shoot in secretive, fascist North Korea. Herzog and his crew went in as part of a volcano-related scientific gathering in the country.
They learn that a long-dormant volcano is essentially credited with being the birthplace of the first family, the family of Kim Il-sung, who in 1948 established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Herzog is only allowed to shoot state-approved scenes, but he makes the best of this access and he turns it into quite a learning experience.
However my favorite image from “INTO THE INFERNO” is of a powerful volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 2010. Clouds of ash billow in multiple shades of gray as they explode into the atmosphere. The density of the ash cloud, much like the potency of a Herzog film, is a difficult to thing fathom.