Werner Herzog might be my favorite poet. He moves from sublimity to sublimity, from collapsed time inside an ancient cave to capital punishment to technological utopia. Each of his films is, in part, a kind of argument about how we mediate nature’s crushing indifference to human civilization–as, really, any good poem should be. Into the Inferno, released on Netflix in late October, is no different. Herzog is joined by Clive Oppenheimer, and the pair sets out to explore the direct and indirect influence of volcanoes on the communities that have grown up around them. In Iceland, we see the Codex Regius, a crumbling, centuries-old collection of epic poems whose lines burst with volcanic imagery. After visiting North Korea’s peaceful Mount Paektu, we’re treated to one of the country’s infamous mass demonstrations of flip-card mosaics. And framing the film are the cosmologies of the small villages in the island country of Vanuatu, where exposed lakes of rolling lava are said to house fickle, skittish spirits.
“Obviously, there was a scientific side to our journey,” Herzog remarks in the film. “But what we were really chasing was the magical side, the demons, the new gods.” On this voyage, Herzog takes a backseat to Into the Inferno’s true Virgil, the charming Oppenheimer. Viewers may remember the volcanologist as the gentle, tweed-clad Englishman Herzog meets in Antarctica on Mount Erebus while filming Encounters at the End of the World. It’s Oppenheimer who speaks with the leaders of villages in Vanuatu about the religious lore the volcanoes there have inspired, Oppenheimer who asks the chiefs what they experience when they look into the boiling craters.
The volcanologist approaches his subjects with profound patience and respect; he doesn’t attempt to challenge or correct a religious leader’s understanding of what these exposed lava lakes represent. When one village chief explains the lava lake on the island of Ambrym as “seawater, but red,” Oppenheimer accepts this as truth, though not as fact. When a leader of a cargo cult on another island tells Oppenheimer that he spent a night in the volcano’s crater, communing with a god that takes the form of an American GI, Oppenheimer asks simply, “Were you afraid?”
When we meet in person, Oppenheimer is soft-spoken, calm, but eager to speak at length about volcanoes both as objects of study for the scientific community and myth-generating devices for small island communities, deep time phenomena and sources of immediate geo-political concern.
—Rebecca Bates for Guernica
Guernica: First, how did you and Herzog choose the locations for the film?
Clive Oppenheimer: We wouldn’t have gone to North Korea, except for the fact that I had been working there for several years. Because we wanted some pyrotechnics, we filmed at Yasur Volcano on Tanna Island, which has very spectacular explosions.
Also, we wanted a deep time perspective. Why, even if we don’t live on a volcano, can we watch imagery of a lava lake and just find it so awesome and just get sucked in like a moth to the flame? I think, in some ways, it’s because we have an echo of the experiences that we acquired as a species in the Rift Valley one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand years ago. Growing up in the shadow of huge volcanoes. Using their resources, obsidian lava, to make our precision tools. Using lava flows as physical barriers to corral prey. Then, from time to time, fleeing from eruptions.
Then, we wanted to have to have a look at contemporary risk. You can’t just walk up in somebody’s village and say, “Okay, our seismometers tell us you need to leave now.” You need to have already talked to them about what could happen, understand aspects of their livelihoods or belief systems. That’s partly why we look at their cosmologies, their oral traditions.
Guernica: When you speak with Chief Mael Moses of Endu Village on Ambrym about the experience of looking into the lava lake there, he replies, “I thought I was looking at the seawater, but it was red. And I didn’t understand. I started to think about why is there water there. And I didn’t understand. I thought, this fire is something that comes from the seawater, so I was very frightened.” Can you talk a little bit about how you saw some of these communities finding ways to describe the experience of living near a volcano, people who don’t have access to the same scientific language that you do?
Clive Oppenheimer: That was really so sincere, you couldn’t not believe how he explained things, even if it was not a scientific description. I remember particularly where he says at the end of the film that he goes up and he looks in at the liquid, the molten magma churning away and crashing against the sides like the waves in the sea, and he says, “It looks like water, but it can’t be water, because it’s red. So, what is it?”
If you’ve got a geoscience degree, you’ll say, “Okay, well, it’s silicate magma and it’s got some crystals and some bubbles in it, the polymerized silicate melted between.” If you don’t, then you’ve got to find an alternative way. There’s no power in these villages. You can’t really ignore the fact that there’s a fiery glow coming from the crater outside of the village every night. It would be very strange if there weren’t belief systems, cosmologies that have come up with an explanation of how volcanoes work.
Guernica: When you’re speaking to Chief Moses about the spirits he believes reside in the volcano, you ask, “The molten rock, is that part of the spirit?” It’s like you accept, for that conversation, that that’s a truth, if not a fact.
Clive Oppenheimer: Nothing was choreographed; there were no storyboards. We just took what came at us. We had a lot of serendipity in the places we went and what was going on at the time, meeting the chief and other wonderful interviewees. I’m not an anthropologist—I really just asked what I thought was interesting, what I wanted to know, what made me curious.
Guernica: At one point in the film you ask Chief Moses whether he wonders why anyone would come to Ambrym to study the volcano.
Clive Oppenheimer: And he’s giggling away.
Guernica: Yes. How do you generally couch what you do to someone who is especially far removed from the scientific community?
Clive Oppenheimer: We didn’t talk about it, but I imagined, after the camera stopped rolling, that we then had a discussion—the two of us exchanging our interpretations of volcanic activity, me trying to convince him why it was interesting to go and study it.
I’d probably go back to basics of our understanding of the earth. Why is there molten rock inside of the earth? It’s been around for 4.5 billion years, shouldn’t it have cooled down by now? Okay, where is the heat coming from, that clearly being one of these key ingredients in making this stuff liquid?
Guernica: What is the human culture element in your work that you find interesting?
Clive Oppenheimer: I work in Antarctica. I’ll be back soon, and it will be my thirteenth trip there. Even there you can’t get away from human culture, whether it’s your own expedition crew, a dozen of us living in a remote field camp for a month together, or coming across the signs of a human material culture from a hundred years ago. [Robert Falcon] Scott sent a team up the volcano where I work, and I found one of their campsites a few years ago. I think if you’re interested in people, and the human condition, it’s quite easy to be immersed in that wherever you are, even Antarctica.
I was in Chad, in the Sahara, earlier this year, at a volcanic range called the Tibesti not far from the Libyan border. You don’t see anybody. Yet, you find everywhere the obsidian stone tools. You see rock engravings of giraffes, cattle, and elephants. You realize, it’s hyper-arid now but five thousand years ago people passed through here. It was like the water tower of the Sahara. You can confront human culture even from that deep time perspective as well.
Guernica: It’s one thing to design instruments that will measure data on Indonesia’s Mount Merapi, as you have, and quite another to talk to people about the spirits living in a volcano. In your mind, what’s the tie that binds these things, how do the stories and the numbers inform each other?
Clive Oppenheimer: The numbers aren’t enough to protect populations. There has to be a whole set of parallel activities. Whether it’s engaging with the media, engaging with the population, engaging with civil protection authorities, local governments, NGOs. There needs to be a lot of engagement if you want to use the science effectively.
All the more so because, in terms of assessing what a volcano might do in the future, there are huge uncertainties. It’s not like a weather prediction, where you’re pretty certain that if we say it’s going to rain tomorrow, it’s going to rain.
Guernica: Do you remember the first time that you looked into a volcano?
Clive Oppenheimer: They were all in Indonesia, the first ones. I went to Merapi—it was the one we filmed in Into the Inferno—and climbed that. That was my first real sort of physical encounter with a volcano. It was quite a slog up the mountain. Rewarding and astonishingly good views from the summit. Then another one that sticks in my mind on that first visit to Indonesia… I kept island hopping east as long as I could. I arrived at one island in the evening, and people said, “Oh, the volcano erupted yesterday.”
I climbed up it the next day. I’m leaving fresh footprints in the ash, just like this sort of powder snow. All the trees had been killed, so it’s this eerie kind of forest. There’s no green, everything is buried in the ash. In some ways it was quite symbolic because it was the furthest I’d ever been from home. I got up to the crater, and it was a turning point in that adventure, because I was slowly heading home after that.
Guernica: Is there such a thing as a Milton of volcanology? What works of art or literature capture volcanoes in an especially compelling way for you?
Clive Oppenheimer: Well, the Milton of volcanology now is Werner Herzog, with this movie. There’s the Codex Regius, which we see again in the film. It’s a collection of epic poems that condenses a millennium of Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, but filtered through an Icelandic lens, so it’s infused with volcanic eruptions.
There’s [Robert] Harris’s book Pompeii, which is a sort of fictionalized account of a Roman hydraulics engineer who gets embroiled in the last days of Pompeii. That’s well written; the volcanology is very well done in that. It’s a very gripping tale. We talk about the poem “Darkness,” by Byron, who was in Geneva two hundred years ago, in the year without a summer after the huge eruption of Tambora in Indonesia the year before. There’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another piece of supposedly volcanically motivated literature.
Guernica: Do you have a white whale in volcanology?
Clive Oppenheimer: Erebus has been the most scientifically rewarding volcano I’ve worked on. You are kind of pitting yourself against the environment—what the volcano is doing, what the weather is doing. I’m left to wrestle with some real conundra of how to explain the patterns and observations that we’re collecting. We’ve had long-term programs on Erebus—each time I go back, I’ve got to do the same things again, but I try and add something new, some new set of measurements. There’s a ten-minute heartbeat at Erebus, which is one of the really puzzling things that’ve emerged. If you only went there once, there’d be lots of things you’d miss about that.
Guernica: A ten-minute heartbeat?
Clive Oppenheimer: The gas composition changes quite subtly, but we actually see the lava lake going up and down by ten feet or so on exactly the same time scale. It’s very baffling. It’s not easy to explain it, and the fact that we cannot shows that there are some big gaps in our knowledge about how volcanoes work. Maybe that’s my white whale after all.