An archeologist, a North Korean dictator, a Norse god, two photographers, the people of Indonesia and a tribal chief who believes Jesus is actually black American WWII soldier John Frum all look into a volcano and see their fates. That's not the beginning of a joke; it's the premise of Werner Herzog's newest documentary, Into the Inferno. Of course, not all these people (and entities) are looking into the same volcano at the same time, but their lives are in some way intertwined with a bubbling cauldron of molten lava, and Herzog unearths wildly fascinating stories about them. But to the film's detriment, each chapter barely skims the surface of these strange people and places, the end result feeling more like a very long trailer for six different, amazing movies than one developed, cohesive film.
The idea that every bit of knowledge we have about volcanoes comes from people who either risked their lives or gave them entirely to the cause of scientific advancement seems barely interesting to Herzog. It's also never clear why he splits the story of John Frum believers -- who are adamant that America and their island of Tanna in Vanuatu are connected through an underground channel whose gateway is their local volcano -- to bookend the film. Its narrative punch is diminished, hitting less hard than the story of a photographer couple who for 23 years filmed erupting volcanoes at close range until they were swept up in a "pyroclastic flow" and killed at Mount Unzen in Japan. Meanwhile, the North Korean footage could most easily be extracted for its own film.