Not content with taking on grizzly bears and Antarctica — or eating his own shoe — Werner Herzog has moved on to his latest extreme subject: volcanoes. In his new documentary, Into the Inferno (out on Netflix and in select theaters Friday), Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer travel around the world looking for eruptions, interviewing locals who hold volcanoes in mythical regard, and constantly wondering if the volcanoes they're shooting could erupt at any moment. Earlier this fall, Vulture spoke to Herzog at the Toronto Film Festival, where he was also debuting a very weird narrative feature, Salt and Fire, about a U.N. scientific delegation kidnapped by a rogue businessman (Michael Shannon) and taken to the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, where one of them (Veronica Ferres) is stranded. Typical Werner! Here's Herzog on lava, death, and Donald Trump. Just try not to read it in his voice.
Why decide to release Into the Inferno on Netflix?
Traditional forms of distribution do not absorb my output quickly enough, and this is the great advantage of doing something with Netflix. At the end of October, they will press a button and it will be available in 190 countries and I think 17 languages.
You don’t long for people to see that beautiful imagery on a big screen?
There will be a theatrical release simultaneously, but of course the vast majority of people are going to see it on Netflix. You can download it to your smartphone, but you will connect your smartphone to your plasma screen at home. I do think that sound in this case is quite important — this deep rumbling under you and you feel there is something exploding! You feel it coming!
So there are certain things that are still better in the theater. But it’s good that we have new forms of distribution out there, and I got to use technologies that we didn’t have 20 years ago. Drones, for example. And I diminish the risk. You do not fly a helicopter over it. You do not get a cinematographer that close to things.
Were there points you felt your life was in danger?
No, when you do a film, you do a film. You just do your work.
Does that mean that you don’t sense danger?
I do. And I’m very, very prudent and well-prepared, and so is Clive Oppenheimer, who is the volcanologist. I’m rumored in the media to be some sort of a daredevil. I’ve done unusual things, but I have never jeopardized the lives of anyone. My proof is that in 70 films not a single actor or extra has ever gotten hurt.
You use a lot of footage from French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who were killed in a 1991 eruption in Japan. Was that just a freak accident?
No, not a freak accident. In general they went too close to the events. Dangerously too close. However the effect was they captured footage that no one else has ever captured. And tragically they perished within a second in pyroclastic flow, meaning gasses coming at you, a dust cloud coming at you, rolling at you, that’s 850 Fahrenheit. You can’t run away. But they deliberately took the risk and they didn’t drag anyone else into the zone of risks. We discussed it quite often. That’s why I wanted to show them and their footage, and also that we are very, very cautious in what we are doing.
There’s also a part where you go to a volcano that’s overdue for an eruption, and days later, it erupts, killing farmers who were standing right where your crew was. Was that predictable?
Nothing is completely predictable. Not like the weather report: “Tomorrow, we’ll have heavy rains rolling in.” That volcano hadn’t had a serious eruption in five, six years. But Clive, who kept an eye on the summit, saw that huge boulders came loose and kept rolling down. And he knew that there were some tremors inside, and because of that we turned our car around. And 60 seconds after we filmed this eruption that didn’t do harm to anyone, he ordered everyone, “Get in the car and out!” Sixty seconds later we were out. And we never came back, and a few days later we learned that there was a more massive eruption that killed at least seven people who were exactly where we were with our camera.
Did you feel something spiritual or mystical at these volcanoes?
No, I do my film. But of course I’m completely in awe to see North Korea and how the volcano becomes a myth and is incorporated in daily propaganda, to see emerging new gods. It’s just fantastic.
The footage you shoot in North Korea of students worshiping a volcano is amazing. How did you get permission to film there?
Clive Oppenheimer had been there three times or four times before in an exchange program between Cambridge University and North Korean scientists, and that’s the only scientific cooperation with the West. So he was able to persuade them to pack on top of it a documentation on film. Of course we had very clear limits of what we could do. But once I was there, I persuaded them to do a lot of things that were not within our program, such as [filming] a kindergarten or the subway.
Now that you’ve been there, do you think they’re a dangerous country to the rest of the world?
Well, let’s not go too much into politics. They have developed their own nuclear weapons, fairly small in size so far, and of course it’s the main sticking point. But I do believe that what you see in the media in the West quite often is that it’s a regime of mad men. And now I think it is not. There is a very coherent worldview. And I do believe that more and more strict isolation and things like this will potentially radicalize the North Korean politics. So it’s good that there is a program of opening up and having a discourse on a scientific level. And it’s the only program so far.
Where do you want to go that you haven’t filmed yet?
The more films I make the bigger the pile of things where I should be and what I should do. It’s the same with reading. The more I read, the bigger the pile of unread literature appears to be. The more films I make, the bigger the pile of unmade films is somehow looming.
You’re doing Netflix now, but you had a huge theatrical success with Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3-D. Is that something you still want to go back into?
The 3-D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams was literally mandatory. It’s the only film I know so far that you really had to have 3-D, because the paintings were not just on flat walls. It was wildly undulating and little side caverns and pending rocks and the dynamic of the walls was incorporated in the art. The bulging piece of rock was part of the neck of a bison coming at you! So it was a unique opportunity to film in there. But so far I have not seen the need, neither before nor after, to do a film in 3-D.
What do you want to film next?
I always somehow do the project that comes with the most vehemence at me.
It’s like when you are walking the street at night and all of a sudden five men come after you and one is swinging an axe. It comes vehemently at you. You had better deal with that one first.
And you can’t say exactly what that is?
I haven’t written the screenplay yet. Give me 20 minutes and I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. I’m not going to do it here.
You had a feature film, Salt and Fire, here. I was interested in the tone of it. It’s almost stiff and absurdist.
It’s a narrative form that doesn’t really regard the conventional forms of telling a movie story. You never know what’s coming next. It starts as a mysterious hostage taking, and then a woman in the second half of the film being stranded deliberately in the salt desert with two blind local boys, and you never know, will she be rescued at the end and can she make her way out? You never have a clue.
What was the vehement vision that that arose from?
In a way it was triggered by a short story of a very talented young American writer, Tom Bissell, called “Aral.” It’s about a man-made disaster, a gigantic lake that dried out, but it didn’t look very interesting there, so I decided I had to shoot in these salt flats in Bolivia, which is the most gigantic on our planet.
Michael Shannon’s character says so many bizarre things. Where did the discussion on alien abduction come from?
You wouldn’t expect a hostage taker to be talking about encounters with aliens of Americans, that 3 million had encounters and 300,000 women claim they were gang raped by aliens. What is at the source of it? And why has it never happened to a woman in Ethiopia, for example. I think it’s a good question! And it’s in the film. [Laughs.]
Speaking of surrealism, have you been watching the rise of Donald Trump?
Of course! It’s different than what we have seen before, but I do remember, I’d like to remind you, that friends of mine were appalled when Richard Nixon was elected president. Tricky Dick and his cast of characters — I mean, it was like in a gangster movie! And yet I insisted, “Keep a look at what he’s doing as a president.” And he turned out to be an important president. Not likable at all, but an important president.
And my friends were appalled that a B-actor from Hollywood became president of the United States, allegedly now acting the role of American president. I’m speaking of Ronald Reagan, and I was never a friend of Reagan, but Reagan left a distinct mark as a communicator, and of course he was not just a B-actor. He had decades of experience as a union leader. And I said, “Just see it from that side.”
Donald Trump, similar sort. Let him be who he is. I’m not worried. You see the opinion polls, and I do believe in the collective intelligence and responsibilities of voters that are always more intelligent than opinion polls. Unfortunately, I cannot vote. I’m not a citizen. I wish I could vote in this particular election.
You have such a good eye for characters and absurdity. How does he look to you?
Oh, let’s not go into that. But it’s an unusual situation. Are you American? You’d better go and vote! Cast your ballot! Too many Americans do not go to cast their ballots. It should be much higher and then we would have probably much less worries as a nation.
This interview has been edited and condensed.