Werner Herzog Interview: Dodging Death by Lava for 'Into the Inferno' and His Catastrophic Early Career
Werner Herzog—the man, the myth, the legend—discusses dodging death by lava, filming in North Korea, and why his early filmmaking was "haunted by catastrophe."
Would you follow Werner Herzog into the inferno? What if he told you, "I am the only one in filmmaking who is clinically sane"?
In his latest documentary, the German filmmaker proclaims exactly that as he stands at the edge of an open-faced volcano. He peers into the cauldron of Earth's roiling innards. In his sui generis narration, he says, "It is a fire that wants to burst forth.... It could care less what we are doing up here."
Into the Inferno bears all of the hallmarks of classic Herzog (no Grizzly Man pun intended): infinite curiosity, hypnotizing footage, a reverence for the simultaneous significance and insignificance of the human spirit, and his trusty, despair-abating brand of humor that finds comedy in juxtaposition and the bizarre.
Teaming up with Cambridge Professor of Volcanology Clive Oppenheimer as co-director, Herzog volcano-hops the planet in search of the folklore surrounding the merciless mercurial works of nature. As he is wont to do, Herzog chases absurdity in Into the Inferno, finding personalities and belief systems, such as tribes that talk to volcanic spirits (and ask them to light their cigarettes); a cult that worships an American GI named John Frum, whom it believes will one day emerge from the volcano bearing gifts; and the world's greatest fossil finder, Kampiro Kayrento (as named by an eccentric UC Berkeley archaeologist) who proceeds to make an extremely rare discovery on camera. The crew even finds its way to North Korea, where we learn that the nation's founder, Kim Il-sung, had a thing or two for volcanoes, spawning a perennial cultural reverence. (One can imagine the volcano to be a metaphor for that mass oppression, with magma bubbling just under the surface.)
No Film School sat down with Herzog and Oppenheimer at TIFF 2016 for a meaty discussion about many things under the sun, including why documentary should be divorced from journalism, how weird North Korea actually is, what the future of the internet looks like, how to fly a camera above a volcanic eruption, and why good filmmakers need to earn their luck.
"The harder you look, the bigger the pile of the unknown becomes." Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog: Which publication on the internet is this?
No Film School: It's called No Film School.
Herzog: No Film School. I run my own film school, but I'm against film schools.
NFS: That's basically our ethos, too.
NFS: In Into the Inferno, the first question you ask Clive is, "How did it feel?" So, now I'll serve it up to you: What does it feel like to be on the edge of a volcano?
Herzog: Clive Oppenheimer is somebody who does it professionally. Even though it's a scientific point of view, it is certainly always overshadowed by the sense of awe. Awe is what I feel looking into a boiling mass of lava.
Oppenheimer: When I'm there, it is usually because I'm doing work to understand how a volcano works. I'm very focused on setting up the equipment and getting the best measurements I can. Then, often, I'm leaving it to operate on its own for a few hours, and I've got time to really take in where I am. I was not designed really to be a laboratory scientist. My laboratory is the outdoors. That's where I feel very comfortable. It is a multi-sensory experience, the science.
Herzog: Of course, for crisis management and for evacuations of massive scale. In Indonesia, where we filmed, with the measurements of the tool that he invented, [Oppenheimer] saved at least 20,000 lives. Because if they hadn't evacuated half a million people just in time, at least 100,000 would have been directly hit and affected. At least 20,000 would have perished.
[Clive] is too modest to take credit. I proclaim that you're sitting with a man who has saved human lives on a huge scale. You're not going to run into anyone within the next decade who has saved so many.
Oppenheimer: You're probably saving more with your texting and driving movie.
Herzog: Maybe, yes. 3 and a half million people saw it on YouTube, which is unusual because the film is too long. Normally, you have 60-second crazy cat videos. That's the attention span out there in the world of YouTube. This is 34 minutes long.
Yes [to Clive], people tell me you must have saved a lot of lives. Maybe. We do not know. You can quantify accidents and fatalities. How do you quantify events that did not take place?
"A few days later, exactly where we were filming, seven people were killed." Werner Herzog
NFS: It's an exercise in utilitarianism, trying to quantify an unquantifiable amount of lives to save.
Oppenheimer: It picks up a theme that science is very much about understanding cause and effect. In my field, we look at past volcanic eruptions and reach some understanding about what impacts they had on past societies. It's been exactly 200 years since "the year without a summer," the terrible summer of 1816. Crops failed and people migrated to the West. This can all be linked back to an eruption of a volcano in Indonesia in the previous year. All you can do is make arguments, present as much evidence as you can, and reach the most rational explanation. It's very hard to say for sure this device saved 20,000 lives or this texting video saved many lives. Or this eruption caused the civilization to collapse on the other side of the planet.
Herzog: In the film, I show footage of pyroclastic flow that killed two French volcanologists. They even didn't film it because they perished in this very event. In the early '90s, a volcano in Japan somehow caught them. Of course, it's coming at 100 miles an hour at you and it's 800 degrees Fahrenheit inside. You would be dead on the spot. That happened to them. For us, it was important to have a conversation about this, because where is the line? How far do you go? Into the magma itself? My answer was no, and Clive Oppenheimer's answer is no as well. You do not need to get the perfect shot all the time. There is safety. There is security. There is responsibility for others.
I think I'm the most safety-oriented film director that is around anywhere. You should have seen me, for example, doing this feature film, Salt and Fire, which is playing with this film [in Toronto]. We had a real SWAT team on our set for more than a week, but I insisted that there wouldn't be any live ammunition anywhere near the set. They would line up every day and take the magazine out and show you it was empty. Do you know who the last one was who would inspect it?
Herzog: It was me. I wanted to make sure myself. It has happened even on highly organized Hollywood shoots— the leading character, in a bizarre tragic incident, is killed by a firearm. The son of Bruce Lee, I think.
NFS: It's the worst kind of accident—the kind that is easily prevented.
Herzog: It's impermissible. It's not tragic, it's absolutely and finally impermissible. The same thing applies to volcanoes. Of course, they might explode. If Clive Oppenheimer perishes, I might perish. I will perish next to him. We made our own choice. We always stayed at a very respectful distance. We always had our car turned around facing the exit, so to speak. Yes, we do these precautions. Of course, the cinematographer and the sound man, they made their own choice. They were not misled. They knew there was a volcano. We have to be cautious. How do we get out quickly, if something starts to give bad signals?
NFS: In the film, you mention that your camera was in the exact place where an eruption occurred several days later.
Oppenheimer: Yes, this was in Sumatra. I realized that I'm really the one most responsible. I know what volcanoes can do. I can't assume that people coming with me do as well. There's a kind of a halo effect: if the sound recorder sees me, then it must be okay. That particular volcano was a real threat and, clearly, that proved to be the case a few days later.
Herzog: Yeah a few days later, exactly where we were filming, seven people were killed.
Oppenheimer: While we were there, I was particularly keen that we did what we needed to do quickly. I never lost sight of the volcano.
Herzog: The volcano gave signals that I wouldn't have observed. For example, huge slabs of rock broke off at the summit and came rolling down. They had a trail of dust behind them. They came tumbling down, meaning there was seismic activity that shook these slabs of rock loose. They are as large as a truck. They looked like pebbles in the distance. Of course, Clive said, "Now, we [are done shooting] this eruption." 60 seconds later we were already out. A few days later it killed people.
"I think I'm the most safety-oriented film director that is around anywhere." Werner Herzog
NFS: Do you generally have a very solid plan of what you would like to capture? Or do you let life take charge?
Herzog: No, you have to give space for discovery and the unexpected. With volcanoes, you never know. We have a wonderful shot in the film of an explosion from a volcano, which was captured by a drone. You don't do it from a helicopter. The helicopter would have perished. That the drone was not hit—this was kind of a miracle.
Oppenheimer: Every volcano documentary—
Herzog: They lose their drones.
Herzog: In other words, you are not going down on a rope because you cannot come back in time when something explodes. You don't use a helicopter. You better fly a drone and maneuver it from some safe distance.
NFS: What was the most surprising, strange, or surreal situation you encountered when making this film?
Herzog: The biggest surprise. We were very lucky that when we were in Ethiopia, the archeologists and paleontologists find remains of some of the very earliest Homo Sapiens, 100,000 years back. In 100 years, only three skeletal fragments were found. Three. We were there when it happened. The second biggest surprise for me—but I knew it was coming at me—was North Korea. Because everything is different. Everything is different from what you will have seen so far.
Oppenheimer: I suppose one real surprise is how difficult it is to make a film in terms of getting filming permits. It's always been easy to get research permits, but filming is taking it up a level.
But the more interesting revelation was a lot of what we explored: belief systems and cosmologies. Whether it's in North Korea, Vanuatu, Indonesia. The convergence is remarkable. A lot of oral traditions from different parts of the world are clearly eyewitness testimonies of past volcanic events, large eruptions. That was quite a revelation.
I'd always imagined that we would make much more of an anthropological film than a scientific one. The way that that really came together in the filmmaking process and the editing process really comes through. That was a revelation, and a happy one.
NFS: What were the specific restrictions or stipulations for when you were filming in North Korea?
Herzog: Nobody can roam around North Korea with a camera as I would do in Canada, for example. We had to accept it. You have to be prudent, and you have to know what you are getting into.
"It's coming at 100 miles an hour at you and it's 800 degrees Fahrenheit inside. You would be dead on the spot. Where is the line? How far do you go? Into the magma itself?" Werner Herzog
I do remember one of our cinematographers wanted to bring his drone. He's very good with drones. I said, "That is not allowed to us." He told me, "Oh I can disassemble it and have some parts of it in different parts of my luggage." I said, "You're not going to do this because number one, you are jeopardizing the fate of the film. Number two, they will find out and you may end up 20 years in prison. There is in prison now an American young man who stole a propaganda banner, I think from a hotel lobby. He's got 15 years for that. You have to know what you shouldn't do."
There's a certain respect for a nation that opens itself up to a film all of a sudden. It's pretty much unique that we had a permit. I do remember that once I filmed something that I shouldn't have filmed. I was asked to delete it. We couldn't delete it because of the complexity of data management. I said to them, "I can guarantee you that this film material is not going to be used." By the way, [it was a] very insignificant moment of filming. They said, "Guarantee, what do you mean by that?" I said, "I have three guarantees. My honor, my face, and my handshake." They accepted it.
Oppenheimer: I think actually the conditions under which we filmed are more revealing than these things shot through a little keyhole camera in someone's lapel. We were there by their invitation.
Herzog: It's the only common project between North Korea and the outside world.
NFS: The volcanic studies?
Herzog: Yes. There's no other project. I firmly believe that it is the better way to deal with North Korea, engage them in common projects. Make them open up small gaps in their borders. Let different scientific approaches and opinions come in. You see we cannot serve all the restrictions and all the sanctions do not really work. In a way, make them more determined to somehow develop their own identity. Even though we disagree with them, they, like any other nation in the world, has this natural right about their own political culture and whatever military identity.
NFS: It was an incredible moment when you asked a university student specifically how he felt about something, and he answered in the collective, with a "we," as in, "the North Korean people."
Herzog: Like I said, everything is different. You don't get a personal or private opinion.
Oppenheimer: In a way you do, the private opinion is this collective. It is. You ask people and they will say, "This is what I believe." It's not that they're trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
NFS: They're conflated.
Herzog: There's something genuine about it. Even though it's very foreign to us.
NFS: Each of you has cultivated, and continues to cultivate, a sense of reverence and wonder for science and nature in all its complexities throughout your respective careers. How do you think that the average person can do that throughout their lifetime?
Herzog: There's nothing special about it. It's just a basic curiosity. It doesn't have to be vis-à-vis science. It can be vis-à-vis another achievement of the human spirit, let's say literature or films. Focus your fascination whichever way it fits to your own identity.
"I try to divorce my documentaries from journalism. When you look into the inferno, it's far remote from journalism. There's poetry in it." Werner Herzog
Oppenheimer: A curiosity and I've found with my academic trajectory is that I wasn't particularly academic in school. I was interested in things, but I would only go in depth with something that I personally had a very strong interest in. I don't even know where it came from, the geology and stuff, when I was very young. I always advise my students, "Look, don't feel you have got to learn and understand every single thing here. If there's one person or one topic that really inspires you and motivates you to want to find out more, then that's great. The system has worked in some way." It's being lucky enough to find out what it is that makes you curious and inquisitive.
Herzog: We are talking, so to speak, with the internet right now. When I filmed Lo and Behold, a film that was sponsored by Netspace—no, what are they called?—Netscout, an internet company. A company that somehow keeps gigantic streams of information flowing. Speaking to the person who did the very first house-to-house communication between UCLA and Stanford, back in 1969, he had no clue of the importance of what he was doing. Nobody had the internet on their radar, not even science fiction thinkers. They had the flying cars and colonies on different planets, but nobody predicted the internet.
The place where I filmed, a small room in a science building at UCLA, 15 or 20 years later was re-equipped the way it looked in 1969. They had to search in the basement for the kind of chairs and the ugly tables that were in there. Only 20 years later, it really sank in that this was of monumental importance. We are going to restore the place now how it looked in October 1969.
NFS: At the time very ordinary.
Herzog: Today, repulsive looking. I'm saying it [in the film] and everybody in the audience laughs. It's my kind of humor. Those sometimes who are at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs are not even aware of the monumental accomplishment.
Oppenheimer: Even 20 years is a short time perspective. We need centuries really to look back on what were really the pivotal moments of change.
NFS: We need more context.
Oppenheimer: It may turn out that we end up seeing the internet as the biggest disaster that humanity ever came up with. Is it just going to homogenize everything we do? Is it going to swamp culture with the lowest common denominator?
Herzog: Yes, but you are there who accepts the lowest common denominator or not. You make your choices. You create your own filters conceptually. Which is fine, otherwise, the internet is a monumental achievement of human ingenuity. It is changing so much, and we better take a good look at it. We have to find a good way to deal with it.
Oppenheimer: Don't you think it's homogenizing? When you look at some places like Indonesia, it's breaking down the old belief systems.
Herzog: So did the printing press and so did many other things. We have to maintain our cultural identity and our standards of thinking. That's everyone's task. We will sooner or later find a good way to deal with [the internet].
"I have the feeling I deserve to be lucky because I was haunted by catastrophe so many times in my filmmaking. It has been a common thing that I have attracted some catastrophes." Werner Herzog
Like we are dealing with automobiles. When you look at the '50s, the kind of gigantic automobiles with this huge fenders and bumpers like spacecrafts and Elvis sitting in one of those cars. Gas-guzzlers, more than a truck today would guzzle. I do remember the times when there was this wild obsession with driving: drive through bank, drive through fast food restaurant. You could do your drive through wedding. You can still do it in Las Vegas. I swear to god, I've seen it. The best of all, in Las Vegas, I've seen advertising: "Drive through divorce."
NFS: And drive-in cinema.
Herzog: Yes, drive-in cinemas, for example. You see all these things have, in a way, disappeared. We are looking at the use of automobiles in a different way. We know we should move to electric cars and we probably have to move to autonomous cars that are driverless. Of course, the internet plays a massive role in this. Our attitude towards the automobile has shifted radically. We do understand the automobile and its function within our lives much better. The same is going to happen to the internet.
NFS: I hope so, sooner rather than later.
Herzog: You're probably too much inside of this world of the internet. Maybe you are losing the further horizons out there.
NFS: Do you remember any footage you loved that didn't make it into the film?
Oppenheimer: Yes, I suppose again that's another revelation: how much film—good stuff—that doesn't make it in. I don't know how many, 40 hours or so of footage. You boil that down to 100 minutes. Clearly, that's some of the magic that goes on in filmmaking, the editing and making very hard, firm choices. I loved it. Being judicious with what you don't use is clearly a very important part of the art. There were a number of things...a number of the Indonesians we spoke to on Merapi.
Herzog: Clive was very strongly in favor of filming in Eritrea or in Ethiopia. I gravitated more towards Ethiopia, which was Plan B. Plan A never materialized because the government wouldn't allow us to come in and film. Plan B turns out to have been much, much better.
NFS: There, you found the needle in the haystack, that Homo Sapiens cranial skull.
Herzog: Yeah, we were very lucky. Sometimes I have the feeling I deserve to be lucky because I was haunted by catastrophe so many times in my filmmaking. Not just metaphorical catastrophes. I mean real ones.
It started out with my very first feature film where the leading character just tumbled down five feet from the edge of a wall and breaks his heel bone. For six months, we cannot film with him. Then, only with him from [the] waist upwards because he had some sort of walking device. You have to accept it and do the best anyway.
"You cannot come back in time when something explodes."
It has been a common thing that I have attracted some catastrophes. Sometimes, I was very, very lucky. Like in Las Vegas. In Ethiopia, the scientist from UC Berkeley speaks about rolling the dice. Within 30 minutes, they produce 35 fragments of a bone of an early Homo Sapiens. It's the third [discovery] in 100 years. Even Clive finds a piece!
We were phenomenally lucky. We were also lucky, as we said, in Sumatra, where we filmed a volcano and it didn't look right anymore. We fled and a few days later, people perish at the same spot. You have to be observant and you have to deserve your luck.
NFS: What do you mean that you deserve your luck?
Herzog: You have to earn it. Like, earn your money the old-fashioned way by working. We earned our luck by being prudent, careful, and working hard. Then, you deserve to be lucky.
NFS: What advice would each of you have for up-and-coming filmmakers who are trying to earn their own luck?
Oppenheimer: I wanted to be involved in making a volcano documentary for a long time, 15 years. I'd been pitching ideas, never quite getting there.
Herzog: We ran into each other.
Oppenheimer: I'm really struck by the serendipity of that. I don't know whether I earned my luck or I made the right offerings to the right volcano gods over the years. Persist with your passion and it might come.
Herzog: Let me address documentary filmmaking. Today you can make a long documentary, feature length, for under $10,000. Even a feature film, a narrative feature film. Become self-reliant. Follow your vision.
When it comes to documentaries, my advice would be to take a hard look at what documentaries are doing nowadays. In their majority, much of what you see is an extension of journalism. I personally try to divorce my documentaries from journalism. When you look into the inferno, it's far remote from journalism. There's poetry in it. There's curiosity.
Oppenheimer: Something else I've observed, hanging out in Telluride and so on, is that a lot of filmmakers are motivated by wanting to be different. They think they can't do this because Werner's known for doing that, or someone else has done that. The innovations seem to come from wanting to do something different.
Herzog: All the time, there's a cornucopia of new things to discover. The harder you look, the bigger the pile of the unknown becomes.