Werner Herzog in North Korea: "We had a deeper understanding because of the quest for reunification"

Salon talks to the legendary documentarian, and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, about making "Into the Inferno"

Published October 28, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)


Werner Herzog, collaborating with Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, takes viewers “Into the Inferno” with his latest documentary. The film’s magnificent opening shot shows people standing at the edge of a volcano while lava cooks below them. It’s a moment of reverie and wonder, and the ever-curious Herzog has filmed the power and danger and beauty of this destructive natural phenomenon.

But as these two men — who met 10 years ago on Mount Erebus in Antarctica, filming Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” — explain, they seek to understand nature not challenge it. Oppenheimer invented a spectrometer that can help save lives (it already has), and Herzog shows how the environment behaves even when humans are in its path and not involved.

“Into the Inferno” showcases fantastic images of magma and eruptions. But Herzog and Oppenheimer are not only interested in volcanoes. There are fascinating side trips to Ethiopia, where a team of archaeologists dig for fossils buried by volcanic ash long ago; to North Korea, home of Mount Paektu; and to the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the John Frum cult exists.

Herzog and Oppenheimer met with Salon at the Telluride Film Festival, where “Into the Inferno” premiered, to discuss their new film, their favorite volcanoes and where they like to travel.

My father was an archaeologist and what impressed me most about “Into the Inferno” — aside from the spectacular visuals — was that you showcased how this kind of science is all about doing the lab work.

Herzog: My grandfather was an archaeologist — ancient Greece. This film was made for young people who want to become scientists. It can’t get any better than showing how science should be done.

Oppenheimer: With volcanology, it integrates many other disciplines: archaeology, obviously, anthropology, climatology and the whole hazard and risk side of it. The fun stuff is going on as all these things integrate. You work with archaeologists and climate scientists, and that’s where the real energy and emotion is.

Let's talk about the risks of your work. Are you adrenaline junkies?

Herzog: No, though I look like it. I'm very prudent.

Oppenheimer: When we were talking at the top of Erebus, I say it’s not worth dying to get a scientific measurement. Of course there are risks, and it’s very difficult to calculate them in a mathematical way. But you do your best. If you have a 1 in a 1,000 chance of being killed, that’s already totally unacceptable unless you are trying to prevent a meltdown that would kill a lot more people. We work with risk and do our best to calculate it and reduce it. We will limit the amount of time spent where we are most exposed.

Herzog: In Sumatra, there are very narrow country roads for miles. You can’t turn the car around, so you [drive] these extra miles and find a side street where you can turn the car around. You know where you put your camera so your car faces the exits. If you film, and 60 seconds after the thing erupts, you jump in your car and you flee.

Oppenheimer: I was watching like a hawk. I remember our sound guy Paul, when we were doing that shoot. He said something like “Would you walk over there,” meaning close to the volcano. And I said, “No, I wouldn’t!” And I think he was quite struck by that. As a layperson, he might wander close to a volcano to get a better view, but he was impressed that we are sensitive to risks, and it was one of the places we didn’t want to hang around.

Herzog: It’s funny how in the long time of me working in various countries and various situations that there is this kind of idea out in the media that I am a daredevil and that I risk the lives of everyone around me, but nobody ever gets hurt on my shoot. Some crew members sometimes, but the actors are OK.

Oppenheimer: It’s irresponsible, particularly as a volcanologist, if I’m encouraging people to do crazy stuff. That makes me morally culpable if anything goes wrong. And there is a kind of halo that — people will follow you in if they see you go in [because] it must be alright. You want to be aware of not giving the wrong impression.

Werner’s films are very much about man versus nature, and nature almost always wins. Here, Werner, it seems you have more of an emotional approach, and, Clive, you have a more scientific one?

Herzog: When I film, there are no emotions. That would be the last thing.

Oppenheimer: Not even the emotion of a poet?

Herzog: No. I don’t see poetry as something that has to do with too much emotion anyway. It has to do with language —

Oppenheimer: [Interrupts] A romantic poet, probably.

Can we discuss man versus nature?

Herzog: There are very, very few films about that. “Grizzly Man” would be a good example but it wasn’t me versus nature. It was Timothy Treadwell, who tried to align himself [with] nature and his understanding [of] wild nature, which was a Disney-ization of wild nature, a deeply conceptual mistake, which unfortunately cost him his life and the life of Amie Huguenard, his girlfriend.

Oppenheimer: Let me answer your question about approaching science without emotion: Yes, when I’m actually making measurements, I’m very focused and I have to be flexible and adaptable. You are not in a controlled laboratory. You need to know which way the wind is blowing, where you can set your equipment up. You are in a very spectacular landscape and you are often alone. So you are left with your own feelings while the equipment is doing its thing.

Let me ask you an emotional question: Do you have a favorite volcano?

Oppenheimer: That’s an easy one. Mount Erebus, where Werner and I met 10 years ago. Scientifically, it’s the most revealing and rewarding volcano I’ve worked on. That’s partly because of the nature of the activity. It’s an open volcano with magma at the surface, so you make very direct observations.

And it is also somewhere where you are not staying at a hotel. You live in a remote field camp and [are] sleeping in tents. You are much more directly in the landscape, and when you are lying in your sleeping bag at night, you feel the tremors and it’s very visceral. It’s a magical and spectacular place to live and work.

Not for me! You have the emotion, Clive. And, Werner, you are unemotional! How does that help your collaboration?

Oppenheimer: We meet in the middle.

Herzog: Somehow, yeah. I do have a favorite volcano, which I have never been to. In northern Chad, the Tibesti Mountains.

Oppenheimer: We have unfinished business with volcanoes there.

Herzog: It’s not an active volcano. It has some bubbling mud. It’s purely my imagination. I tried to go there in the late 1960s, but there was lots of hostage taking. The name of the volcano is Emi Koussi. It’s like a mirage. I’ve seen photos like mirages, in the mountains, 10,000 feet high.

And when you see these gigantic mountains floating in the air, I have this vision of an imaginary place, although I know it exists. I wanted to make a detour to the southern Sahara to Emi Koussi in the Tibesti mountains, but there was tribal warfare and hostage taking and it was just too dangerous. I never made it.

Oppenheimer: Yet.

You still have a chance . . .

Herzog: No, no. Maybe it should stay like that. My favorite place, which is only a figment of fantasy.

Oppenheimer: It’s a fantasy I remember we shared on Erebus, when we met. I’ve been to Chad but not to Emi Koussi. There’s a big volcanic province. The remarkable thing about it is you find rock tombs and rock engravings of giraffes and elephants and cattle, and you find obsidian stone tools everywhere. So 5,000 years ago when it was wetter, it was the water town of the Sahara and a migration route to the Mediterranean.

The film has a lot to do with rituals and spirits, beliefs and traditions. Can you discuss your rituals, spirits, beliefs and traditions?

Oppenheimer: As a volcanologist, you have an interest in the practical, applied side of volcanology, of using a science to protect people at risk from volcanoes. Then you need to understand their belief systems because you need to engage with them when the volcano is threatening, so they can evacuate.

Herzog: It’s fascinating to dig into these belief systems like the John Frum cult. And North Korea has a very striking mythology there. It is influencing the whole nation. 

How do you find the interesting people you present in the film and gain their trust?

Herzog: Gaining trust is not difficult for me. I needed to gain the trust of the North Korean supervisors. One day I shot something I was not supposed to film. Someone immediately stepped in front of the camera and had the request to delete the footage. But I couldn’t for technical reasons; data management was so complicated. It went on for two days.

Ultimately, under the threat that I had to deliver to them two days' worth of recordings, I just came to them and said, “I can’t delete and I would hate to hand over my entire footage, but I give you my guarantee.” And they said, “What do you mean by guarantee? Something in writing?” And I said, “No, no. It functions differently. Three guarantees, in fact: my honor, my face and my handshake.” And they said “OK.”

We had a deeper understanding because of the quest for reunification. The North Korean people knew that I had traveled around my own country, Germany, which was divided at that time. I spent time, following all of the sinuations of the border, in the mountains, up and down. I thought [about] what politics had abandoned.

For example, German Chancellor Willy Brandt, whom I liked, gave a statement that the book of German reunification was closed. And I said to myself, “This is much bigger than a political thing.” Only the poets can hold the country together, and I wanted to hold it together. The North Koreans knew that, and I think they were deeply moved by this. I saw one of the men crying . . .

Oppenheimer: Because unification is an important thing. It’s an open wound.

Herzog: It’s much, much deeper than politics, and it’s deeper than propaganda.

Would you want to go back to North Korea and make a film about that?

Herzog: Instantly, instantly, but, of course, you can only film what has been accepted as a program. In our case, it was science, but then I started to extend it. And in extending it, they would follow me.

Let’s talk about legacy. Clive, you say in the film that your spectrometer is your baby. What do you want your legacy to be?

Oppenheimer: If I think about legacy, which I don’t, I’d say it’s my students. Both the undergraduates and more directly the graduate students.

When I met Werner, an interesting coincidence, I had a film camera used to make a video installation on a volcanological theme. Doing that made me realize that science is a creative process, but it’s very incremental. I realized that I’d lost the feeling of being creative. But I now know my life has not been lived in vain, having worked with Werner on this movie. It’s not going to be my legacy, but it’s obviously going to be there after I’m not around.

Herzog: What Clive doesn’t pronounce here, but I’ll do it, is when you speak about his baby, this spectrometer, in 2010, half a million people were evacuated [in Indonesia] because of readings from his instrument. The lowest estimate of saved lives would be 20,000 for one single eruption that his instrument predicted. The readings from the instrument forced the evacuation that was very spontaneous. His tool is out there worldwide. I would consider it his legacy.

Oppenheimer: If you have an interest in applied volcanology, you think of how it could be useful to protect populations, but I don’t have that feeling that my legacy is that I have saved live[s] in other countries. I am not on the front lines. As a university academic, I get to retreat to the ivory tower, but people like Sri Sumarti [who works at a lab in Indonesia] were there. Nobody knew if the volcano was going to do something really big. They are the really dedicated people.

Werner, do you have a legacy answer?

Herzog: No, not really. Maybe I should stay a good soldier of cinema.

Oppenheimer: Your children . . .

Herzog: Yeah, but they have their own lives and their destinies. I am too much into what I’m doing in my work.

How much research and organization is involved in making a film like “Into the Inferno?”

Herzog: It’s Oppenheimer. He’s been to North Korea five times.

Oppenheimer: All the places we visited, I had connections to. I had worked there previously. The people we interviewed such as the archaeologists in Ethiopia were part of a self-contained field project that has been going on for 15 years or so. We parachute in. There were a lot of practicalities we had to solve, like carting around an obscene quantity of film gear.

I think in some ways, one of the things I discovered is that you can struggle to get the access you want, and we did fall back on Plan B, but that actually turned out fortuitously to be better than our Plan As. We were going to Eritrea, and Ethiopia was Plan B, but if Eritrea had gone ahead, we wouldn’t have walked into an archaeological dig where they had just found the third most important fossil. So it was serendipitous how things worked out.

Werner, you shoot beauty and danger. Can you talk about how you filmed shooting on the edge of volcanoes?

Herzog: In our case, I’m doing this with very solid, independent, strong men — actually, a team of men, all of them prudent and experienced in life and physically very strong. They wouldn’t be in the wrong spot and fall into the crater.

Where do you like to travel when you are not working?

Oppenheimer: It sounds a bit like a busman’s holiday. But the Aeolian Islands, near Sicily and the toe of Italy — they are all volcanic, but they are magical. For me, that’s a good place to relax, and I don’t have to be working the whole time, even if I’m on a volcano.

Herzog: I wouldn’t like to travel at all. I’ve been too much around. I have two more finished films, “Queen of the Desert,” which was shot in Morocco, and “Salt and Fire,” which was shot in Bolivia. This film was shot in North Korea, Ethiopia and Iceland and [Indonesia]. So I don’t want to travel.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Clive Oppenheimer Documentary Film Into The Inferno Volcano Werner Herzog