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Monday, February 12, 2018

Volcanos and fiery conversation: An afternoon with Werner Herzog

When you have the chance to see a film never before shown on the big screen AND to see its celebrity filmmaker live, you don't turn it down.

Last Thursday was the day that Werner Herzog visited The Coolidge Corner Theatre to accept his Coolidge Award, and although that specific event was in the evening, in the afternoon he attended a screening of his 2016 Netflix documentary Into the Inferno, and had an extended Q&A after.  A memorable afternoon it most certainly was! 

As a Coolidge member, I had reserved a ticket weeks ago, got there early, and saved a seat for my friend.  I shot this photo while waiting for her, but when she arrived we moved closer several rows.  Then the fun began.
First up was the film, and I loved itIt follows the Herzog blueprint of exploring distant and dangerous lands, this time sharing the lens with British volcanographer Clive Oppenheimer, with whom Herzog has had a longtime friendship.  The film isn't about the science of volcanoes, although there is some of that; it isn't about the search to uncover volcanic secrets, although there is that; it isn't about capturing the violence and cinematic beauty of volcanic eruptions, although there is that as well.  In reality, it's a little of all those things, with perhaps humankind's odd and wondrous relationships with volcanoes being the primary theme.  Herzog himself traveled to locales like Indonesia, North Korea, and the Danekil desert in Ethiopia, developing relationships with and seeking insights from those that live on the edge of volcanic worlds. I found the segment with an inside view of the North Korean society, along with their country's volcanic origin story, to be particularly fascinating, especially today.  
North Korean children instructed in music (from Netflix Into the Inferno trailer)
The film successfully weaves scientific, personal and sociological explorations seamlessly with the characteristic Herzog editing finesse.  I didn't mind that a single theme wasn't deeply explored - which was a criticism by at least one reviewer I read.  The film was varied enough that whatever your interest, you were left wanting more, in a good way.  Another feature of a Herzog film in abundant evidence here, to this fan's delight, was the choice of music.  Choral music by Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi, and Schutz, along with the prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, and traditional vocal music by Russian monks from the Kiev Pechersk Monastery, enhanced the magic and awe that we were taking in visually.

At the end of the film, Herzog was formally introduced by Katherine Tallman, Executive Director at the Coolidge, and was greeted enthusiastically by the sold-out crowd.

With a slightly raspy voice, he answered questions from moderator Professor Herbert Golder (Boston University).   For those interested, the entire Q&A was captured via Facebook Live and archived here.

Naturally, many of the questions related to the film we had just seen. I was surprised when he expressed that one of his main motivations to make the film was to get young audiences excited about science.  "If young people are inspired to become scientists, then the film will have been worth it." 
Herbert Golder from Boston U. and Werner Herzog.
There was also discussion about the larger themes, especially religious and spiritual, that are included in this and much of Herzog's work.  He acknowledged that while not adhering to a specific religion, he is fascinated by 'belief systems' and inspired to reach the sublime that is beyond everyday realities.  Considering much of his chosen music was religious, he told of a difficult negotiation with the Russian Orthodox church, which objected to sacred music with reference to 'voices of angel's being superimposed over images of volcanic eruptions.  In deference, Herzog left out some of the music he wanted to include. 

Herzog touched on his career of getting close to 'the edge' in many of his films.  He laughed and said he's still around because he balances his awe of nature with appropriate prudence.  The conversation naturally turned to the future of our planet, and his remarks were balanced--no doomsday view from this filmmaker.  "We are on shaky ground, but that doesn't mean we should roll back progress or go back to being hunters/gatherers."  And, "The Amish would be the only survivors on the planet if the internet went down for two weeks." (!)

Finally, he was asked his views, somewhat indirectly, about the current political climate in the U.S.  This is when the conversation turned fiery, and Herzog didn't hold back: "Trump was elected in a democratic process. We have to live with this.  The problem is not Trump, but the culture and the alienation felt by many in the heartland of the U.S.  The problem is not Steven's Point, Wisconsin, the problem is Boston."  A respectful hush came over the cinema then.  Herzog apparently feels that those in the audience at the Coolidge should work harder to develop a discourse with those in 'flyover' country.  I won't comment further, as my role is film blogger, not political commenter.  

I was glad that before this event, I took time to watch more of Herzog's work, including Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979), as shared in last month's blog; Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), and the fascinating documentary My Best Fiend (1999) about his relationship with volatile, unstable, but brilliant actor Klaus Kinski.  It helped me better appreciate the skill and uniqueness of this still active auteur, with whom I shared an afternoon.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the evening conversation and award presentation, but for those interested, that is also available on Facebook here:

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