Once upon a time, my older sister and I watched a lot of random 90’s movies together. One of those was Mick Jackson’s 1997 disaster film, Volcano, in which Tommy Lee Jones’ character tries to save the city of Los Angeles after an earthquake hits and causes the formation of a deadly volcano. For whatever reason, the film’s images of molten lava flowing through the city streets are still clear in my mind. We had only recently moved from Southern California, so five-year-old me was very likely petrified that a volcano could (and would) just pop out of the ground whenever it felt like doing so. And then there was the whole “the floor is lava” thing…
Into the Inferno, directed by Werner Herzog, is a 2016 documentary film that follows Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer as they explore active volcanoes around the world. They’re not just there to study craters or lava though. Through their travels, Herzog and Oppenheimer attempt to understand humans’ relationships, ideologies, and spiritual practices with one of nature’s most violent wonders. They meet and work with indigenous people, volcanologists, and archaeologists as they delve into what drives everyone’s seeming fascination with volcanos.
Herzog and Oppenheimer met by chance atop Antartica’s Mount Arabis, an active volcano that is one of three in the world where you can look straight into the magma of the earth. Ten years later, the two friends set out to explore different people and their beliefs through an exploration of active volcanos. The documentary offers stunning images of molten lava—bubbling and popping—as it glows orange and red against the dark of night. It is mesmerizing. Though, like Mael Moses, Chief of the Endu Village, the power of the volcano frightens me too.
The Ednu Village of Vanuatu, a cluster of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, is prone to catastrophes of all degrees: floods, storms, and volcanic eruptions. Chief Moses and his people trust in the volcano though, no matter how dangerous. While most of the people have lost the idea of dancing, Chief Moses’ family still celebrates it. As they perform “the happiest dance,” they sing and make music with handheld instruments, wearing crowns and clothes of leaves. As small children and adults alike stomp their feet and chant the song, their joy is palpable. They depend on the volcano.
Indonesia is home to more volcanos than any country in the world, including one of the most dangerous volcanos: Mount Merapi. At the Babadan Observatory, volcanologists monitor seismic movement, magma levels in the cone, gas measurements, weather, and more to track Merapi’s volcanic activity. The country depends on this information and its early warning systems to survive. Three hundred feet below sea level, Ethiopia’s Afar Region is the hottest place on Earth and home to an active basaltic shield volcano. Erta Ale, which features two active lava lakes, is another of the three volcanos in the world where magma is directly exposed. The volcano is crucial to the study of early humans and has become the focus of a team of archaeologists as they unearth Homo sapien skeletons from more than 100,000 years ago.
On the border of China, North Korea’s Mount Paektu has a long history as the mythical birthplace of the Korean people from the volcano. It is the scared mountain of the revolution where the struggle was fought against Japanese occupation, and has become an important feature in much of North Korea’s propaganda. Students in matching uniforms march to the top to sing in celebration of the volcanic mountain. The song, “Let Us Go to Mount Paektu,” is sung by everyone else in the country too. The mountain is so significant to the country that Kim Il-sung established his secret military headquarters in a forest at the base. It means everything to them.
“Obviously, there was a scientific side to our journey. But what we were really chasing was the magical side—the demons, the new gods. This was the itinerary we had set for ourselves, no matter how strange things might eventually get.” – Werner Herzog
“The lava expresses the angriness of the devil who are living in that fire volcano.” – Chief Mael Moses
“What is it, really, that makes us human? We are a very unique species in a way—we interact and we collaborate and we cooperate and we produce, we modify our environment. But at the same time, we fight and destruct, and we are even a danger to other species and the planet—the fate of the planet as well. And so we are very interesting species.” – Dr. Yonatan Sahle
“The soil we are walking upon is not permanent. There’s no permanence to what we are doing. No permanence to the effort of human being…to art…to science. There is something of a crust that is somehow moving, and makes me fond of the volcano to know that our life—human life, animals—can only live and survive because a volcano’s created the atmosphere that we need.” – Werner Herzog
“It is hard to take your eyes off the fire that burns deep under our feet. Everywhere, under the crust of the continents and sea beds, it is a fire that wants to burst forth, and it could not care less about what we are doing up here.” – Werner Herzog
“The spirit of the mountain is in all the Korean people.” – Clive Oppenheimer
From the Vanuatu Archipelago and Indonesia, to Ethiopia and Iceland, and even into the elusive North Korea, we see how volcanos have affected the past and present. There are many people who believe that spirits live inside the fire; they communicate with the volcanic deities, or they perform rituals at temples, the ocean, and on the volcano, or they appropriate sacred myths of the mountains. The indigenous people of Tanna Island believe the Mount Yasur volcano created a new god named John Frum, a mythical American GI who ascended from the clouds.
I was surprised by just how much this film and its creators explored the spiritual beliefs and practices associated with the volcanos. People have studied the science of volcanos in great depth, but Into the Inferno shows us that there is much to learn of the spiritual elements too. Volcanos are still unpredictable. Are they a result of the spirits and gods? Are they rooted in the storied myths? Or is it just the power of the fire that lies below the Earth’s crust? They are amazing and terrifying to watch, hypnotic and deadly—a double edged sword if ever one existed. And yet, we depend on them.
“I believe that someday, these volcanos will erupt…Everything will melt—the stone, the soil, the trees and everything—will melt, like water. This volcano will destroy this world someday.” – Chief Mael Moses