Seeking Humanity in Volcanoes with Werner Herzog
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has spent decades crossing the globe to tell the stories of humanity, from our origins to our possible end. His latest, Into the Inferno (Netflix, 2016) is no exception—a world tour of volcanoes, their power to devastate, and the stories and gods people have created in order to coexist with them.
Herzog talks to Ira about the film, the role science plays in his work, and more. The filmmaker is also joined by University of Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who first met Herzog 10 years ago during a visit to Antarctica’s Mount Erebus. They talk about the intersection of science and human stories in the study of volcanoes.
Werner Herzog is the director of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). He is based in Los Angeles, California.
Clive Oppenheimer is a professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England.
IRA FLATOW: Filmmaker Werner Herzog has spent decades crisscrossing the globe to tell the stories of humanity, from our origins to our possible end. His latest, Into the Inferno film is no exception. It’s a world tour of volcanoes, their power to devastate, and the stories and gods people have created in order to coexist with them.
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.
IRA FLATOW: The film takes us to Indonesia, Iceland, and even into isolated North Korea. Well, volcanic Mount Paektu has been woven into a nationalist mythology. Did you see the film yet? If you have and if you want to talk about Werner Herzog’s films in general, our number 844-724-8255. Or you can tweet us @SciFri. I want to welcome Werner Herzog, director of Into the Inferno, which was released on Netflix last month. He joins us from LA. Welcome back.
WERNER HERZOG: Yes, thank you for having me here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Tell me a little bit about the film. This isn’t the first time you visited a volcano or volcanoes in your films. What is this fascination you have with them?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, it’s a long history. I have woven things into it that have fascinated me since long time. Back in 1976, I mean, ages ago, I filmed a very volatile volcano in the Caribbean on the island of Guadalupe, which was about to explode. And then 10 years ago, I filmed in Antarctica about people and scientists working there. Among others, there was an excursion up onto Mount Erebus which is a very active volcano in Antarctica. And I met Clive Oppenheimer there, a volcanologist. And since then we somehow plotted to do a film on volcanoes.
IRA FLATOW: Let me bring him in. Dr. Clive Oppenheimer is a professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Oppenheimer.
CLIVE OPPENHEIMER: Thank you. Great to join the show.
IRA FLATOW: What is the importance to you of understanding the people who live near the volcanoes you study, as we see so so well documented in Werner’s film?
CLIVE OPPENHEIMER: On one level, it’s important for us as scientists to understand what people in societies living on volcanoes think about, the landscape, and the terrain, and the activity of a volcano. If we’re going to communicate to them effectively when the volcano is showing signs of reactivation, we need to ask people to evacuate, we can’t just waltz in there and tell them that the seismometers readings tell us you’ve got to leave now. We need to understand their belief systems and so on.
But also some of the oral traditions tell us about past events that we didn’t know about scientifically. So there’s a lot to learn from the anthropology. And on top of that, they’re just very, very compelling narratives and stories and cosmologies that people growing up on the side of volcanoes have about them.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist, Clive Oppenheimer. Clive, what kind of film like this, as opposed to more straightforward science documentaries, how can this better communicate to viewers?
CLIVE OPPENHEIMER: I think one thing it does, it goes beyond the doom and gloom and the science to show that actually volcanoes, I think, connect with us. I mean, why we all so mesmerized when we see footage of volcanoes? There’s something quite atavistic about it. And I think part of that is our deep experience in terms of our human origins in the East African rift valley growing up in the shadow of volcanoes, and utilizing their resources, but fleeing from eruptions from time to time.
And so I think the volcanology as a discipline, it interfaces with so many other fields, whether it’s the geoscience, or the anthropology and archeology, or the literature, or the humanities and the arts. It’s a fascinating discipline because you can work at all of these interfaces where the really interesting research is going on.
IRA FLATOW: This film takes you and Werner to Ethiopia where you helped excavate fossilized hominids with a paleoanthropologist, Tim White. Connect that to volcanoes for us, if you can.
CLIVE OPPENHEIMER: Well, it goes back to, again, our human origins and archaic humans. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this can be traced back to the East African rift valley, a very tectonically active and volcanically active part of the world. And the volcanoes gave us very valuable resources in terms of lava, stones that we used to make precision tools.
But at the same time, we would have had to have fled, our ancestors, from eruptions from time to time. And I think the act of fleeing and then having to interact with unfamiliar groups, these experiences have built us up as a very resilient and adaptable species with the cognitive skills that we have today. So I really wanted for us to be able to root the film and the human experience of volcanoes in this very deep time perspective.
And it was a huge thrill working with Tim White, and arriving when he just found this fabulous human fossil from 70,000 years ago. It was a huge thrill.
IRA FLATOW: And we can see that. It’s just amazing how you were all digging up those fossils there. And we know what a wild and crazy guy Tim White is from being on the show many times. What do you think, what’s the connection, Clive, between you and Werner? Why do you think you connected so well?
CLIVE OPPENHEIMER: I think we fell in together– not into the crater, but we fell in metaphorically– in Antarctica. And I think it was in some ways serendipity. I was researching there and Werner was making a film. And we met in a very remote field camp, 10,000 feet up on an active volcano in Antarctica. So quite an unlikely set of circumstances.
But I was very enchanted by Werner’s storytelling around the dining table in our field hut in the evenings. And we shared our dreams about volcanoes. And it turned out we’d both had a passion to visit the Tibesti volcanoes in northern Chad in the Sahara. And so I think we had a shared dream about making the film. I recognized La Soufriere as a wonderful film from 1976. But I could see Werner hadn’t finished with volcanoes yet. So we stayed in touch.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I know that you have a real job to get to, Clive. So I’m going to let you go and continue conversation with Werner Herzog. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
CLIVE OPPENHEIMER: Thank you. Wonderful to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Thanks for joining us.
WERNER HERZOG: Thank you. Best to you, Clive.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
WERNER HERZOG: ‘Neath the sea, the land sinketh. The sun dimmeth. From the heavens fall the fair, bright stars. Gushing forth steam and gutting fire. To very heaven soar the hurtling flames. The fates I fathom, yet farther I see of the mighty gods, the engulfing doom. Comes the dark some dragon flying, ‘neath hog, upwards from the [INAUDIBLE]. He bears in his pinions as the plains he over flies naked corpses. Now he will sink.
IRA FLATOW: Filmmaker Werner Herzog reading a passage from Iceland’s Codex Regius, describing a volcanic apocalyptic event. We’re talking with Herzog about his latest documentary, Into the Inferno. It is a stunning tour of volcanoes around the world, and the ways that people interact with them. And Werner, it’s always of a theme of your movies to see how the people are affected by what you discover.
WERNER HERZOG: Well, it’s a human side that was more interesting for me than the scientific side. However, we just had Clive Oppenheimer joining in via telephone. We have to face one thing. Of course science is of enormous importance in volcanology and in crisis management. In 2010, when in Indonesia Mount Merapi exploded, his tool that he created, a spectrometer that measures gas emissions, was one of the key ingredients to start immediate evacuations of about half a million people very rapidly. And the mountain exploded, and it’s very conservative that an estimate I would say 20,000, maybe 50,000 lives were saved. So that’s a very, very important side.
However, we were looking more into the human side of it. What kind of demons do they create who live under the volcano? What kind of new gods do they create? And of course, we filmed in the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, and there is a strange cargo cult drawn from a mythical American GI who would return with all the goodies of the consumer society, chewing gum, fridges, jukeboxes, maybe even a Cadillac. And they revere him as a god, and it’s very, very strange.
Or in North Korea where, for millenia, the volcano Mount Paektu has been considered as a mythical birthplace of the Korean nation. It was appropriated 70 years ago by Kim Il-Song, the founding father of communist North Korea. And he declared it the epicenter of the dynamics of the North Korean revolution. So it’s very strange how all of a sudden new gods, new demons, new relationships between men and mountain start to emerge.
IRA FLATOW: You came back with some stunning photos filmed from North Korea. How did you get access to those places?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, our program that we were permitted to shoot was basically the scientific research in collaboration between the University of Cambridge and North Korean scientists, the only such joint venture existing for them. But somehow I talked them into allowing me to expand and to go into propaganda and presentation of the North Korean identity. We were allowed, not suddenly but with a lot of talking, to film in a kindergarten, to film in the subway, to film in a stadium, things that were not within our program.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And there was some amazing footage that you got of erupting volcanoes. And one I noticed is that you describe how there’s lava rushing down the side of a mountain at you at 100 miles an hour, but you don’t finish it up. We don’t see what happens. Did you pick up the camera and leave? And why did you cut that part out?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, I did not film that. That was back in the early 1990s. And it was an event that actually killed a French couple that has approached volcanoes so close that they were always in danger. And they created footage that nobody has ever seen before and after. And the events that actually killed them was a so-called pyroclastic flow. You have to imagine like a dust avalanche coming at you at 100 miles an hour and 850 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat inside, it kills you instantly.
And this was filmed by a team of Japanese TV people who did one shot from a helicopter. In the other shot, which was down there, do you see fleeing people, and the fleeing fire truck. And it’s coming at you, and they turned off the camera before actually this pyroclastic flow reached them.
WERNER HERZOG: If we look at your filmography, we can see that follow other filmmakers whose subjects have led to their demise, like in your film Grizzly Man and White Diamond. Do you relate to these people?
WERNER HERZOG: No, not necessarily. We shouldn’t overconstruct now the connections there. But I see your point. Yes, tragedy concerning the French couple, Katia and Maurice Krafft. But the beauty of their existence, and they always said we do not want to die in our beds like 98% of all the other Frenchmen.
I think Timothy Treadwell, who shot footage of unbelievable intensity and beauty, he didn’t want to die in a bed either, I believe. And exposing himself to such dangers created footage, where he created footage that is unprecedented. We’ll never see anything like that.
And so the tragedy that befell him and his girlfriend, who was also killed and eaten by a bear, this tragedy is a side effect. A tragic side effect his given us footage that we will never, ever see again.
IRA FLATOW: Our number 844-724-8255 is our number. Lots of callers. Let’s go to Chicago. Let’s go to Dallas. Hi, welcome. Welcome. Chicago, you’re there?
SPEAKER 4: Hello
IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.
SPEAKER 4: Hi. Hi Ira. Hi Werner. I just wanted to ask Werner, while making the film and studying the volcanoes for such a long period of time, did you learn anything about yourself as a person or a filmmaker?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, that’s a question I try to avoid. Yes, you do learn and you have to learn to be prudent. And you see, there’s a strange public persona and artificial public persona out there, as if I were the reckless daredevil who is just with wild obsessions facing the dangers. No, it’s not like that. And Clive Oppenheimer 10 years ago was mostly surprised that I didn’t rappel down into the crater itself just getting close to the boiling magma.
In a way, I have learned to be prudent. I want to come back with a movie. That’s what I have learned. And I’ve always done that. You will not see me perish easily out of sheer stupidity.
IRA FLATOW: That’s good to know. All of your films this year, Into the Inferno, Salt and Fire, Lo and Behold, they all feature scientists, whether fictional or real. And even physicist Lawrence Krauss plays a role in your eco thriller. How would you describe your relationship to science, to scientists?
WERNER HERZOG: We have to be careful. Salt and Fire is not an eco thriller. It’s more about a mysterious hostage taking. But one of the villains in the film is Lawrence Krauss, who is a cosmologist. That’s his day job. But when I met him somewhat 10 years ago, I immediately had the feeling he should be a villain in one of my films.
But he’s also an expert talking about the internet. Very intelligent argument that he makes. And science in a way is a frontier that is so incredibly exciting. And much of what is happening there is very much cinematic, some sort of a quest and an excitement, and something that you do not see anywhere else.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let me go to the phones. Our number 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Angela in Newark. Is it Newark, California?
SPEAKER 5: Yes, Newark, California. Hi, Ira. Hi, Werner.
WERNER HERZOG: Hello.
SPEAKER 5: Can you hear me?
IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.
WERNER HERZOG: Yes, I do.
SPEAKER 5: Hi, hi. Hi. It’s so thrilling to speak with you, because I consider you to be an international living treasure. I wanted to thank you so much for all of your work, and particularly Into the Inferno. I have to say that Wednesday was a really difficult day for me and for much of the nation.
And I have to say that I listened to you on Forum earlier this week with Michael Krasny. I think you were on Monday. And you made a comment about the election, about our election. And you just heard Michael Krasny, that’s how we would all be OK. And I think you made a comment about having a beer on Wednesday night to talk about things.
And so of course, my way of coping was to watch Into the Inferno on Wednesday night. And I want to say that it was very inspiring and humbling. And I was wondering if you maybe have a few inspiring and humbling words of wisdom for us today? I’ve just been thinking about Tuesday, what would Werner Herzog say right now?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, thank you very much for your kind words. And concerning the election, I think there was a surprise for many. But one thing that has bothered me for many, many years, and I’ve spoken out about it, east coast and west coast always had a very cynical attitude about the American heartland. They spoke or they speak of the fly-overs. And the fly-overs voices of all these people all of a sudden have risen. And they have decided the outcome of the election. There’s no doubt in my heart.
And I think you should not really panic about things. The office itself is so important of the Presidency of the United States. It will shape Donald Trump in a way. Don’t doubt about it. And I do remember the days when Richard Nixon, tricky Dick Nixon was elected and my friends were appalled. And I said, he’s not a fluffy politician at all. Not very likely. But he became an important president. There’s no doubt in my heart.
Ronald Reagan, all my friends were just appalled a second rate Hollywood actor now is trying to act as president. And I try to point out, no, not so. He was a union leader for decades. He was governor of the state of California. And he became a great communicator. Whether you liked him on not, doesn’t matter. He was also an important president.
And I think you should not panic. Tie your shoe strings well. Keep on walking and shape the future which is far ahead of all of us, in a [? few ?] the younger generation.
IRA FLATOW: You’re listening to Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow talking with Werner Herzog, filmmaker, director of Into the Inferno. So Werner, how do you top this film? Have you got something else already in the works?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, I do have two feature films not released yet. One is Solved in Fire, which I shot in Bolivia. And one is Queen of the Desert with Nicole Kidman. Some sort of a female Lawrence of Arabia. It should have been released more than a year ago, but there was a glitch it between production company and the distributor. I think it’s sorted out. It will be released here in the states. A little late though, but it’s OK.
IRA FLATOW: Are we done with the volcano themes in your films?
WERNER HERZOG: I shouldn’t return to it. Personally, yes. Maybe I take some vacations and go to some wild raging volcanoes. But not for movie making. You don’t do like Rocky 1, 2, 3, and 5. You don’t Volcano 1 till 16.
IRA FLATOW: Well how do you decide? You have such a unique way of shining a spotlight on things we’ve never thought we’d see on film. How do you decide what you’re going to take up as a subject?
WERNER HERZOG: Well, very often things come at me with enormous vehemence and often uninvited. You wake up in the middle of the night and you hear something, and you get up and there are five burglars in the kitchen. And once comes swinging at you. I keep saying this is happening to me quite often. And I have to deal with it. So it’s a kind of vehemence.
In case of Into the Inferno, it was more a slower procedure. But I always knew there’s something deeply moving and disturbing and cinematic about volcanoes. I have to do that with greater intensity.
IRA FLATOW: And your footage is so dramatic and your photographers got so close to some of these volcanoes that it’s almost miraculous that we didn’t hear about more deaths of this film.
WERNER HERZOG: Well, as we are prudent, some of the footage was shot by drones. A helicopter cannot fly over a boiling cauldron of lava. It would explode from the heat. But we do have drones nowadays, and some of the beauty, really intense shots are done by drones. We had a very, very excellent drone operator. And it was great, great joy to film this. And also of course, sometimes you take long lenses, and you don’t have to step that close to the boiling magma.
IRA FLATOW: Well, we were glad you stuck close enough to get some great footage. It’s a great film, Werner. Thank you for making it and showing it and sharing it with us. Werner Herzog, director most recently of Into the Inferno. It’s streaming worldwide on Netflix. Check it out. Thanks thanks for joining us again, and good luck in the future.
WERNER HERZOG: Thank you very much.